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Fueled by massive spending from donors, Ryan Day is confident Ohio State can finally break through



Fueled by massive spending from donors, Ryan Day is confident Ohio State can finally break through

COLUMBUS, Ohio – At his post-game news conference following Ohio State’s 30-24 loss to Michigan last November, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day looked defeated and despondent. He certainly realized at that moment that despite winning 88 percent of his games as a head coach, he and his program would now be defined by their unthinkable three-year losing streak against the Wolverines.

More than four months later, sitting in his office at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the 45-year-old Day smiles, giddy and seemingly at ease. He exudes the confidence of a coach who knows how stacked his roster is, having brought back nearly every junior from Ohio State who could have gone pro while adding some of the most successful transfers in the portal.

“At Ohio State you have to beat Team Up North and win every other game,” Day said. “If that is the expectation every year, your chances are much better if you have good players. So you might as well get the best.”

If it weren’t for NIL, Day said, “You certainly wouldn’t have seen what you saw with us this year.”

After an embarrassing 14-3 Cotton Bowl loss to Missouri, Ohio State donors went scrambling for money. With the help of two collectives, The Foundation and The 1870 Society, the program has re-signed defensive linemen JT Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer and Tyleik Williams, running back TreVeyon Henderson, receiver Emeka Egbuka, cornerback Denzel Burke and guard Donovan Jackson. who were projected first or second day draft picks.

“Coming in, our (2021) recruiting class was very strong. We knew we could do something special,” said Jackson, one of six five-star signees in his class. “But after three years here we have not achieved the goals we had in mind. NIL is a controversial subject, but in this case it gave us the reassurance to come back and pursue it again.”

With the core of his roster returning, Day entered the portal to plug the few remaining holes. His haul included All-Big 12 quarterback Will Howard (Kansas State), All-SEC running back Quinshon Judkins (Ole Miss), freshman All-American safety Caleb Downs (Alabama) and veteran center Seth McLaughlin (Alabama).

The backfield tandem of Henderson and Judkins could be particularly scary. Together, they have rushed for a total of 5,470 career yards and 63 career TDs.

“We don’t decide who’s in the portal,” Day said. “But if there are guys, we want to upgrade our roster in certain areas.”


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Before that December 29 bowl game, Ohio State was not considered a major player in the NIL-fueled portal market. In fact, retired AD Gene Smith was one of the most outspoken critics calling on the NCAA to crack down on collectives’ involvement in recruiting. This was two months before a federal judge in Tennessee ruled that the NCAA cannot enforce rules that prevent collectives from negotiating NIL deals with recruits.

Even after 2023 starting quarterback Kyle McCord entered the portal shortly after last year’s Michigan game, and as third-year freshman Lincoln Kienholz swung against Missouri, ESPN broadcaster Dave Pasch told viewers at the Cotton Bowl that Day had been adamant that Ohio State would not pursue another. quarterback.

Five days later, Howard, who had previously visited Miami and USC, committed to the Buckeyes. Tellingly, when Downs committed to the Buckeyes from Alabama on Jan. 19, the Foundation broke the news on Twitter.

Two years ago, Bye told an audience of business people it would cost $13 million in NIL money to keep Ohio State’s roster. Today the budget is believed to be even higher.

“There have been a lot of people who have really helped us,” Day said. “Gene (Smith) obviously plays an important role in this, but I’ve made a lot of calls and a lot of people have taken action. It just shows how great the support is here.”

With the personnel in place, Day made another big decision: finding a renowned offensive coordinator to whom he could hand over the play-calling for the first time in his career. After his initial choice, Bill O’Brien, left in February to become head coach at Boston College, Day called his former college coach at New Hampshire: Chip Kelly. In a stunning move, Kelly quit as head coach at Big Ten-bound UCLA to work for Day, who worked under Kelly at the Eagles and 49ers before coming to Ohio State in 2018.

“I hadn’t thought about it that way,” said the 60-year-old Kelly, who enjoyed returning to his roots as he coached UCLA’s quarterbacks leading up to their bowl game. “Coaching football makes me happy. It’s that simple.

“I never wanted to get into athletic administration, but the head coaching job is starting to turn into that in certain places. I find it difficult to ask people for money.”

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That’s Day’s job now.

The fruits of all that fundraising work will be on display Saturday as Fox televises Ohio State’s spring game for the first time. Viewers will get a chance to watch the quarterback battle between Howard and returner Devin Brown. They’ll get their first glimpse of freshman receiver Jeremiah Smith, who was so dazzling during spring camp that coaches already consider him a starter.

Smith, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2024, had been committed to Ohio State for more than a year but caused a stir on the first day of the early signing period last December when he didn’t sign his letter of intent until that evening. . The statement, as reported by The Athletics Manny Navarro, was that “Smith’s NIL representative ensured that whatever the Ohio State collective had promised Smith during the recruiting process would be put into writing.”

But besides Smith and rising sophomore Downs and receiver Carnell Tate, Ohio State’s starting lineup will consist almost entirely of fourth- or fifth-year players. As many as 17 positions could be filled by players with at least a year of full-time starting experience, including nearly the entire defense that ranked third in the nation last season (4.2 yards allowed per play).

This was all an intentional move by Day.

“We’ve been talented here in the past, but when you lose guys to the NFL after three years, you can get young again quickly,” he said. “I have noticed that in recent years: I want to be talented, but also experienced. I noticed that some of the teams we played against are a little over 21, 22 years old, and I think that matters.

He won’t say it, but those teams were Michigan’s.

However, despite all that talent, Ohio State has two question marks – and they are perhaps at the two most important positions. One of these is the offensive line, which struggled at times last season. Returning starters Jackson and tackle Josh Simmons, a 2023 transfer from San Diego State, have the left side locked down, but the right side remains in flux.

And then there’s the quarterback. Although Howard has started 27 games and led K-State to the 2022 Big 12 championship, no one would confuse him with Justin Fields or CJ Stroud. He has not yet been defeated by Brown, who was injured early in his first career start in the Cotton Bowl. But Howard also offers the staff an opportunity as the program’s first true dual-threat QB since Fields in 2020.

“We felt like Will was a great fit for our team for a lot of reasons,” Day said. “I’m pretty excited to see how he fits into Chip’s offense.”

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In some ways, “Chip’s offense” was already Ohio State’s offense. It’s largely the same passing game Day brought from Kelly’s 49ers when he was hired as OC by Urban Meyer, just with different terminology. Kelly says he sometimes caught himself calling a play by the wrong name during practice.

But Kelly’s impact should be felt most in the running game. Ohio State’s offense under Day has sometimes been criticized for lacking too much finesse (hence his infamous Lou Holtz rant after last year’s Notre Dame win). Although Kelly is no longer running his Oregon offense from the early 2010s, his UCLA teams were still synonymous with a high-powered offense. In 2022, with dual-threat Dorian Thompson Robinson at quarterback and star tailback Zach Charbonnet behind him, the Bruins led the nation with 6.0 yards per carry.

Now he will team up with Henderson and Judkins.

“I think (Kelly) likes some of the tools he has to work with,” Day said with a smile. “Our passing game was very, very successful, and his run game was very, very successful. So when we combined the two, it was fun.”

With all that talent, the generosity of all those donors and the splashy hiring of offensive coordinators, the bar hasn’t been this high in Columbus since Meyer’s Buckeyes captured their 2014 national title. Ending Michigan’s drought will be a basic expectation, but Ohio State must at least play for its first national championship in a decade, a task made more difficult this season by the 12-team Playoff.

“This wasn’t like it was broken,” Day said. “The truth is that over the past two years we have been a game or a step away from achieving our goals. We haven’t beaten our rival in recent years, which is painful, but we were one game away from beating Georgia (in the 2022 semi-final). We’re trying to figure out that last 1 percent, 2 percent. Those last few plays.”

And Ohio State spent a lot of money figuring out those last few plays.

(Photo: Jason Mowry/Getty Images)