COLUMBUS -- After a season in which Ohio State failed to meet its lofty goals, Ryan Day could have told himself the Buckeyes were close and pushed forward with the way they were doing things.
A star quarterback, talented receivers and running backs plus a solid pass-blocking offensive line and tight ends should have the Buckeyes competing for the Big Ten title and another College Football Playoff berth if the defense simply improves incrementally with the return most of its starters.
A year after choosing the status quo coming out of the season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, though, Day went the other way this time.
The head coach made major changes to the coaching staff, ultimately ending up with three new assistants on the defensive side of the ball.
Those changes centered largely on what happens in the back end. The secondary is under new management (assistants Tim Walton and Perry Eliano), and new coordinator Jim Knowles (who coaches the linebackers) describes his scheme as “safety-driven.”
Those stories have already been told from multiple different angles since January, but the preseason has revealed the Buckeyes are trying something new up front, too.
While there is no doubt Ohio State could stand to stop the pass more effectively after finishing 97th nationally in yards allowed through the air, the defensive line ranked 51st in “average line yards,” a metric from Football Outsiders that attempts to capture the offensive line’s role in getting at least four yards on a run and the defensive line’s success in preventing it.
That mark was down 40 spots from the previous year and by far the worst for Ohio State since 2017, the earliest available ranking.
One day after offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said the Buckeyes had not run the ball as well as he would have liked in the first scrimmage of the preseason, defensive line coach Larry Johnson confirmed his guys are playing with a greater emphasis on plugging the middle this year.
“We call it block destruction,” said Johnson, who said when he arrived at Ohio State in 2014 he preferred a penetrating style he described as stopping the run on the way to the quarterback. “We’re going to attack the line of scrimmage, create separation and escape and get off blocks. That’s how you control the gaps, and that’s what we’ve been working on every day to make sure we control the line of scrimmage, get off of blocks and then react.”
Like Wilson, he said his front is not ready for the seasonopener against Notre Dame on Sept. 3, but he sees progress.
“I feel better because we’ve had more time to prepare, but we’re a long ways away,” Johnson said. “We’re still 15, 20 days away from a game.”
When Day weighed change versus the status quo, it probably didn’t hurt that the ultimate insult — getting pushed around and humiliated on a snowy afternoon last November — came against Michigan.
The Game has prompted plenty of firings over the years and changed the course of many careers.
An early-season loss to Oregon was disappointing for the Buckeyes, but they’ve had to wear the 42-27 defeat at the hands of the Wolverines like a badge of dishonor all winter, spring and summer.
Sometimes such outcomes can turn around a program for years at a time, and multiple Michigan men have talked about feeling like their triumph could have that impact for the Maize and Blue.
Months remain before the Buckeyes can do something about that directly, but Wilson likes what he has seen in the response on defense so far this month.
“It’s been very, very competitive — very physical in practice,” Wilson said.
He also sees the emphasis on leadership in the offseason, a plan hatched by Day and carried out by strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti, as having an effect.
“I feel like the leadership and the culture that was kind of built through the summer with ‘Coach Mick’ and the way we cross-pollinated the team, it’s not like we’re fighting against each other. We’re just competing like heck to get better,” Wilson said.
“Sometimes you got me and next play maybe I’m getting you, so there’s been a lot of back and forth. And it’s been competitive, tough, consistent, back and forth banter. It’s been really good. It’s been fun. It’s been challenging.”