COLUMBUS — Ohio State kicked off fall camp on Thursday morning with the first of 25 practices as it prepares for the season opener against Notre Dame on Sept. 3 in Ohio Stadium.
Like every team that has come before them, the expectations surrounding the 2022 Buckeyes — going undefeated, winning the conference, and playing for a national title — remain unchanged despite several critical questions that will continue to linger into the regular season as a result of their shortcomings a year ago.
But before Ohio State can worry about how the defense will fare this season or whether or not the offense can again be the best in the country, head coach Ryan Day said following Thursday’s practice there are three particular points of emphasis his team must first be rooted in so that everything else may fall into place.
“For the whole team, the preseason is about toughness, discipline, and skill,” Day said. “Those are the three areas we really want to focus on. Overall toughness in the preseason, and the reason we say that is because we have to keep each other upright, we have to take care of each other, and we have to work with each other. But at the same time, we’re going to build that callous and that edge.
“And then the discipline of just playing the game. Penalties, the discipline of your position, coming out every day and working hard, taking care of your body. And then skill. The skill of your position, the skill of playing the game. So those are really the three areas that we’re kind of focused on across the board.”
In addition to those three points mentioned on Thursday, Day spoke at length during last week’s Big Ten Media Days about the need for his team to develop the “competitive stamina” necessary to endure a long season. It was the lack of that stamina that Day pointed to as a turning point in the loss to Michigan last season, a game Ohio State trailed by just a point at halftime, but was unable to overcome a tougher, more determined opponent over the final two quarters.
However, Day also singled out his team’s Rose Bowl win over Utah as a moment when Ohio State’s competitive stamina won out in a wild, back-and-forth shootout in Pasadena.
Asked on Thursday if competitive stamina was an attribute that can be developed in a camp setting rather than throughout the long grind of the season, Day said there will be a time as camp wears on when players will need to rely on that competitive stamina to continue maximizing each practice. However, he added the development of competitive stamina must be a point of emphasis for the duration of the season.
“I think it’s something we have to hammer all year long,” he said. “There’s really no way to build that in terms of the length of the season, but I think we can talk about it in the second half of (individual) practices, the middle of camp, and the end of camp when the newness has worn off. It certainly was up on the slide last night (at our team meeting) and something we’re hitting.
“But today, everyone was jacked up today and flying around. That’s going to be coming up real soon though, that middle and end of practices where you really have to play some of your best football. And then that third and fourth day in a row of pads when it gets hard, where are we? That’ll be part of it.”
Revitalizing the defense
Should Ohio State build that successful foundation, no question will loom larger than the current state of its defense, which will be under almost entirely new leadership this season as Larry Johnson Sr. remains the only holdover from the 2021 staff.
Former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has been tabbed to replace Kerry Coombs and Matt Barnes as the unquestioned architect of a unit that finished 38th in scoring defense and outside the top 50 in yards per game last season, and how quickly he can transform the Silver Bullets into a respectable defense figures to go a long way in determining whether or not Ohio State can reach its ultimate goal.
With just one light practice under its belt, however, Day said on Thursday there is still a long way to go before having an idea of what can be expected from the defensive unit this season.
“I think once we get the pads on, we’ll get a better feel for that,” he said. “But certainly, (we’re looking for) the understanding of the defense, where guys are at, how quickly they’re fitting things the right way, how fast they’re reacting the way they’re supposed to be. You can tell by their confidence when you’re anticipating as opposed to reacting. I think that’s important.”
He added that while the scheme is certainly important, playing with good technique and fundamentals is even more crucial as the foundation of everything the defense will do this season.
“If we don’t have that, it doesn’t work … These days in helmets, it’s good to see these guys flying around and giving good effort, but we’ll get a better idea once the pads are on and we’re able to block and start getting to tackle and scrimmaging,” he said.
Day said last week the expectation for the defense is to be a top-10 unit in the country, a comment that caught the attention of many who were eager to debate the feasibility of such a lofty goal. During Thursday’s press conference, Day doubled down on that goal, saying the expectation to be just that will never change for any unit at a place like Ohio State.
“Some will say, ‘Why would you say it has to be a top 10 defense?’ I’m not saying it has to be, I’m just saying that’s the expectation,” Day said. “That’s the expectation on offense. It’s Ohio State, we should be a top-10 special teams unit. We want to be the best in the country at what we do. We should be held accountable for that, and that’s the goal. That’s what we’re working to make sure happens. And if we do have a top-10 offense, top-10 defense, and top-10 special teams, that’ll give us a chance to reach our goals.”
Ohio State will be back on the field this morning for the second practice of fall camp.