'We have to win' – How Ryan Day is building Ohio State to beat Alabama

COLUMBUS – Ohio State’s 28-point loss to Alabama in last season's College Football Playoff title game rarely comes up in conversation around the Woody Hayes Center. But the corrective actions to close that gap are still distinct, even if rarely spoken about.

OSU head coach Ryan Day is as likely to trot out the old “We Want Bama” fan trope as he is to dye his hair Quinn Ewers’ blond hue. But the signs are obvious that Ohio State is operating to catch college football’s premier program.

With the Buckeyes recruiting at historic levels, staffing changes swiped from the Nick Saban handbook and the program taking on more of Day's identity, the evolution is clear. Day is building off the sturdy infrastructure left behind after Urban Meyer’s 83-9 run that ended after the 2018 season.

Day says flatly that his job is to win every game. And that’s why the latest alterations to the program are rooted in traversing the daunting final step from title game participant to crystal ball holder.

“We've kept a lot of what Coach Meyer did,” Day told Yahoo Sports in his office this week, “but we've also made it ours.”

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 11: Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) speaks with Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day on the sidelines during the College Football Playoff National Championship football game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Ohio State Buckeyes on January 11, 2021 at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Day is 20-2 in his two full-time seasons as a head coach and 14-0 in the Big Ten. Both losses came in the College Football playoff – Clemson in 2019 and Alabama in January.

There's no actual signs in OSU’s facility related to chasing Alabama. The stated goals on the local signage remain playing for the Big Ten title and beating the so-called Team Up North. Day is consistently understated and non-controversial, so he’s unlikely to give any buzzy sound bites.

But the actions tell all – the juggernaut recruiting, the hiring and the subtle shifts toward the highest levels. How close are the Buckeyes to Bama? It's a fascinating question after a four-touchdown loss.

“I think we’re close,” says long-time strength coach Mickey Marotti, who saw Saban build the Bama machine first-hand while at Florida.

The gluttonous amount of young talent proved the most striking part about being around Ohio State this week. There’s an unusual amount of early hyperbole for the 2021 Ohio State class, which ranked No. 1 in rankings for average stars (4.07). At this point, Ohio State has a good sense of what it has after 15 of the players enrolled early.

“This is the most talented freshman class we’ve ever had,” Mark Pantoni, Ohio State’s long-time director of player personnel, said in his typical understated tone.

As Day evolves to put his imprint on the program, the conversation starts with talent. This year, the Buckeyes have the country’s best wide receivers room, led by potential All-Americans Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, a strong argument for the country’s top offensive line and a marauding defensive front led by end Zach Harrison and tackle Haskell Garrett.

But it's impossible to ignore the intrigue around the young Bucks, as part of Day’s spin on the program has been further establishing it as a national presence. OSU’s elite freshman class has high-end quarterbacks from Philadelphia (Kyle McCord) and Texas (Quinn Ewers), a freaky tailback from Virginia (TreVeyon Henderson), two five-stars from the Seattle area (Emeka Egbuka at WR and J.T. Tuimoloau at DE) and an underrated defensive back from Arizona (Denzel Burke) who is pushing for starters reps.

Egbuka and four-star Marvin Harrison Jr. should earn snaps amid a position group that receivers coach Brian Hartline has humming at such a high level that the standard is being reset to three-and-out All-Americans.

Henderson arrives to a crowded backfield room without a bellcow back, and his rare burst shows the promise for him to immediately contribute.

There’s a pair of freshman defensive ends – Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau – who arrive as top 15 overall recruits, and among the best regarded defensive recruits in school history. While the talent of eventual upside of both is potentially close to that Bosa-Young rare air, a unique separator of this class is the staff’s excitement over the two tackles – Tyleik Williams and Michael Hall – who give OSU four staunch defensive line building blocks.

Marotti gushed over freshman offensive tackle Donovan Jackson, who has unusual twitch and the highest upside at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds. While he won’t start for OSU this year, he’s expected to push for snaps. Burke could crash a crowded and talented secondary for a pivotal role because he has played so well.

Marotti summed up the uniqueness of the class this way: “I just think it’s the number of guys.” In other words, it’s the quantity of the quality that’s standing out.

To beat Bama, it will start with talent. And Day’s recruiting tact has been a simple one: create an atmosphere where kids want to come. There are couches and a fireplace in Day’s office, a new wing essentially built adjacent to the OSU locker room to create a more comfortable atmosphere. There are new shelves in the hallways with pictures of the OSU staff with their families.

Day’s pitch revolves around building an environment where recruits are attracted to come, not talked into coming. “Here’s what we are, and if you want this, let’s do it and own it.”

Day adds: “In a world where you have to win — we don't have a choice, we have to win at Ohio State — but trying to make it as family-like as possible.”

iJan 1, 2021; New Orleans, LA, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) evades Ohio State Buckeyes defensive tackle Haskell Garrett (92) during the second quarter at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Russell Costanza-USA TODAY Sports
Haskell Garrett, pictured harrassing Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence in a CFP semifinal on Jan 1, returns to a talented Buckeyes defensive front. (Russell Costanza-USA TODAY Sports)

Here's how Buckeyes are trying to match Crimson Tide's coaching staff

Alabama’s 52-24 drubbing of the Buckeyes in the title game featured Bama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian exploiting mismatches all night and Ohio State looking a schematic step behind. Day made immediate changes. He removed defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs’ secondary duties to make him a walk-around coordinator, focusing more on the holistic defense.

Day is blunt about that dreary night.

“Certainly, the way it ended in that game was not good,” he said. “There's been a lot of emphasis put there, and like anything else, you gotta make the corrections and I'll be surprised if they're not made.”

A few months after seeing former head coaches Charlie Strong, Mike Stoops, Major Applewhite and Butch Jones across the sideline helping Alabama in off-field roles in the national title game, Day beefed up the off-field strategic brainpower in the quality control role at OSU.

He hired Iowa State former head coach and long-time defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who has emerged as a trusted voice behind the scenes in his quality control role. Rhoads is 54 with white hair creeping out of his hat. He has been at eight FBS schools, including Ohio State as a graduate assistant in 1991, and that experience has allowed him to blend in as a staff complement.

“He's been a pleasure, and I think the guys on the defensive staff would agree,” Day said. “The easy thing to do is see him as a threat, but that's not the case at all. He's just there to help.”

Long-time offensive coordinator Todd Fitch, who worked with Day at Boston College, is added to the offensive side. The moves, much like when Saban does this, take advantage of a market inefficiency. Rhoads still has a year on his contract from Arizona and Fitch has two more years from Vanderbilt. The moves are low cost for OSU, and they give Day the ability to have a veteran coach eyeing potential postseason and playoff opponents for strategic edges months ahead of time.

Day also hired former NFL linebacker and veteran college assistant Ricky Brown to help special teams coordinator Parker Fleming, who slid onto an on-field role from a quality control position last year. OSU also broke the job of former director of player development Ryan Stamper into three roles, all designed to better the experience for players.

Day’s former defensive coordinator, Jeff Hafley, observed the moves this way from afar, saying they are part of Day trying to “lay his identity” in the post-Meyer era. “He's got an unbelievable identity, he has a team where he wants them, he won the Big Ten, he won the Big Ten [again], [he’s saying] now I gotta win a national championship,” Hafley said. “And when you look over at the Alabama sideline, you see ex-head coaches, which is awesome for them, right? So it's what resources do we need, maybe, that we're not using? And we have the means to get them, let's go get them.”

The next iteration of Ohio State, along with all the ones that follow, will retain the DNA of what Meyer built but continue to evolve into the identity that Day is forming. And after an undefeated season and title game pounding, Day’s decision making indicates he’s figuring out a way to erase that 28-point gap.

“It's really neat to see him, it's kind of his gig now, and how he utilizes history and the past, the present, and the future,” Marotti said. “It's really cool. When you're successful like Urban was, and to do the things that he did here, it's really nice to see that legacy that he built continues to grow and then also Ryan, to see him be his own and bring his own flavor to it. That's been really, really cool.”

With a flurry of five-stars and a staff evolution, Day is aiming for a new flavor to appear in place of the bitter taste from the last game of last season.

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