Ohio State football is back, albeit with a very different feel.
The Buckeyes hit the practice field on Thursday for day one of fall camp in preparation for a 2020 college football season that may or may not happen.
While no media members are permitted to attend practices due to COVID-19, head coach Ryan Day met with media via a Zoom call following practice to discuss where his team stands as it prepares for Illinois on Thursday, Sept. 3.
“It was great to see our guys out there,” Day said of the return to the field. “The energy of the coaching staff, the players, and the leaders, just being out there with a football and running around was great. It was great to see our guys with so much energy on the field, doing what they love, and just kind of forgetting about everything else for about an hour and a half.”
Day said there have been conversations with his players about the prospect of not having a season, but he continues to revert back to the mantra he and his team have lived on for the past several years. “When we say, ‘Focus on right now and win the moment,’ this is the ultimate situation for that because we don’t know what is coming tomorrow,” he said.
With some of the game’s biggest stars continuing to add their names to the list of players opting out of the 2020 season, Day was asked if there have been any conversations with his players about the potential for not playing.
“I talked to the team yesterday and made sure they understand that if somebody does have concerns and opts out, for whatever those reasons are … that we’re going to have conversations,” Day said. “If at the end of the day they don’t feel comfortable, if their family doesn’t feel comfortable, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to be part of the program. We’re gonna figure that out and make sure we have a program in place until they do feel comfortable, whenever that might be.”
Day said the communication has been great throughout the program, and he gave heaping praise to the training and medical staffs, as well as Athletic Director Gene Smith and the administration, for the environment that has been created for the players at Ohio State. He said they have continued to learn things as they’ve progressed since the spring, which has served to create an even better environment moving forward.
To that end, Day stated that he is completely comfortable with his team starting training camp when asked where he stood on football returning. However, he acknowledged he is not yet comfortable with games potentially being played.
“I think the Big Ten did a wonderful job yesterday in laying out some of that, as we get into the competitive season, some of the details and protocols moving forward, but certainly there are more details to be ironed out before we go play that first game,” Day said.
Plenty remains to be seen regarding the quality of play if games are played. Ohio State held just one spring practice before the shutdown, and summer workouts among players were also compromised as a result of the pandemic. However, Day said he has no worries that his team might not be fully ready to play at a high level when the team heads to Champaign, Illinois for the season opener next month.
“Looking at this team right now, the way they worked in the offseason, and a lot of times they were by themselves,” Day said. “It was virtual stuff. But the way they worked this summer, the way that they led into this summer, I’m not concerned about (being ready to play) at all.”
Day later said the leadership has been so good from his players that as many as 11 or 12 players could have been named a captain this season.
Thursday’s practice gave Day his first chance since spring to see quarterback Justin Fields on the field. Fields was named one of seven Buckeye captains on Tuesday, and Day spoke on what made the quarterback worthy of such an honor.
“I think that Justin had a chance to be a captain last year,” Day said. “He quickly made an impact on his teammates. First of all, his ability to operate the team at quarterback, just a natural leadership role. But he has his own way of leading. He has a lot of credibility with the entire offense, for a lot of reasons.”
Day said the way Fields led the team late last season while overcoming some physical issues, was when he really won the team over. As for this year, Day said Fields is “very, very motivated, and you can just kind of see the look in his eye.”
Ohio State returns three high-quality starters to protect Fields along the offensive line, and the front five figure to be among the team’s biggest strengths. For that to come to fruition, however, two new starters will need to be identified. Sophomore Harry Miller figures to slide in at left guard, but the right tackle position will take on more of a battle during camp as two former five-star recruits compete to win the job.
Day said it is difficult to evaluate offensive linemen until the pads come on, but added that both sophomore Nicholas Petit-Frere and true freshman Paris Johnson Jr. have been impressive.
“I think that Nick had a tremendous offseason,” Day said of Petit-Frere. “I think his body weight is as strong as it’s ever been … really looks like a different person.”
Of Johnson, Day said the freshman’s attention to detail has impressed him in the short amount of time he has been on campus.
The biggest news to come out of Ohio State’s single day of spring practice was an Achilles injury suffered by projected starting running back Master Teague III. Day said Teague has done “an unbelievable job of rehabbing,” and Teague amazes him every day with the determination he has shown “just to get to where he is at now.”
Day didn’t specify exactly where Teague is with his rehab, but with the additions of Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon and incoming freshman Miyan Williams to go along with Steele Chambers, Day said the running back group is much deeper than it was during spring practice.
No Buckeye position group has more question marks surrounding it than the secondary, which lost two first-round cornerbacks in Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette, as well as a three-year starter at safety in Jordan Fuller. Cornerback Shaun Wade’s decision to return for another season gave the Silver Bullets a tremendous boost, but playmakers still need to be identified if the Buckeye defense is to avoid a significant drop off from a stellar 2019 effort.
Asked who is beginning to separate themselves from a large pool of candidates vying for snaps, Day identified two cornerbacks in junior Sevyn Banks and senior Marcus Williamson. He said both have shown leadership and “set an example, and they’re holding guys to a certain level.”
Ohio State will return to the practice field today for day two of fall camp.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.