LINCOLN — When Scott Frost returned home to coach his alma mater, fans on the streets, he said, were warm and excited. Their prevailing mood? Welcome back.
Ohio State’s Ryan Day has fans approach him on the streets these days, too. They cut to the chase.
“People ask me, ‘What if you don’t beat the team up north (Michigan)? What if you don’t win the Big Ten championship or the national championship?’” Day told Buckeye beat reporters Wednesday. “And I’ll always come back with, ‘Well, what if do?’ That’s the mentality I’ve always had.
“Maybe it goes back to what happened when I was young and nothing was guaranteed in life. That’s always how I’ve been. Let’s go play.”
Good answer. You have to like Day — a combination of choir-boy polish and tough-guy bravado fitting of his New England roots — even as Nebraska fans, or fans of any other Big Ten team not named Ohio State, know his presence creates a potential power vacuum in the Big Ten.
Day is the hand-picked replacement for Urban Meyer, whose mishandling of a former assistant’s domestic violence incidents overshadowed a fierce seven-year run for the Buckeyes. Meyer won a national title, twice qualified for the College Football Playoff, won three Big Ten titles and never lost to Michigan.
Yes, he burned out and burned through coordinators and assistants. Yes, his moral blind spot for one assistant — the grandson of Meyer’s mentor, Earle Bruce — accelerated his departure from Ohio State. But he’s one of the best coaches in the sport’s history.
His successor isn’t yet. The best-case scenario (for Ohio State) is that Day is the next Lincoln Riley, who took over for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and promptly coached two Heisman Trophy winners at quarterback. The best-case scenario (for the rest of the league) is that Day is just decent, like Bruce was, and the door swings wide open for Big Ten foes, including Nebraska.
Day’s biggest advantage is roster talent.
OSU still has a lot of it on both sides of the ball, and the odds-on favorite to start at quarterback next season, Justin Fields, is a former five-star recruit who transferred from Georgia. The Buckeyes already have six 247Sports composite top-100 recruits for their 2020 class.
Day allowed his two offensive and two defensive coordinators to talk last week, too, and the theme with all four was the same.
Sign up for Big Red Today news alerts
Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.
“If we (slow down) a guy because he has to think, and make him less of a player, then we’re not doing our jobs as coaches,” said new co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, who has spent the past half-decade in the NFL. “There might be certain places you go where you’d have to do more. Maybe you’re not as talented as some teams. There might be some situations where we have to do that.
“But they’ve done a really good job here of getting some really good football players. And I think we have to let them play.”
Hafley is impressive. A coach to watch.
Ohio State’s defense allowed 25.5 points per game last season — the most in three decades — including 51 points and 535 yards to a Maryland team that openly struggled with the forward pass. Hafley, along with former Michigan DC Greg Mattison, is tasked with fixing it.
OSU this season will use more zone pass coverage — Hafley said it allows defensive backs to make more plays on the ball and isn’t quite as exhausting — and try to rely on a strong four-man pass rush led by junior defensive end Chase Young.
Day oversaw the passing offense last season and did wonders with Dwayne Haskins, who threw 50 touchdowns and became the first Big Ten quarterback to be picked in the first round of an NFL draft since Kerry Collins. (Which, given Tom Brady and Drew Brees are on an expressway to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, really doesn’t matter, but still.)
Haskins represented a shift from the read-option quarterback preferred by Meyer. Day landed Fields and hired Mike Yurchich away from Oklahoma State to coach Fields.
You see where the Buckeyes are headed, right? To a pass-first system that turns down the volume on quarterback runs in favor of a spread passing offense.
Is Fields that guy? He has all the physical tools — and he can run. Yurchich wants a lot more.
“We have to be responsible, we have to go through our progressions, we have to get the ball out on time,” Yurchich said. “If things break down — and the creative process takes hold — I don’t think you ever want to take the athleticism away or hinder or handcuff anybody. But there still has to be a discipline throughout the process of quarterbacking.
“We understand where his strengths are and where he needs to continue to grow. And we’re not going to sit here and say he needs to become a better scrambler.”
It’ll be interesting.
Day won three straight for the Buckeyes as interim coach last season, but OSU’s two giant road losses — 55-24 at Iowa in 2017 and 49-20 at Purdue in 2018 — included poor quarterback play and iffy play-calling. The losses cost the Buckeyes CFP berths. Day had a hand in both defeats.
And Ohio State fans don’t abide by such losses year after year. The expectations at Nebraska are high for Frost, but there’s reason and grace applied to his tenure. In Columbus, forget Day posting a 4-8 season. He can’t post 8-4 without the heat being turned way up.
To OSU fans, the Big Ten is the Buckeyes’ league. Michigan and the rest of the plebes just live in it. So Day has to reflect that confidence.
“We’re not going to be hesitant about anything,” Day said. “We’re not going to be apprehensive. We’re going to go after people and be aggressive, because that’s the way I think you have to live life. You’ve got to be aggressive that way. To start getting anxiety or worry about losing, it’s not going to happen.”