Ryan Day’s first season as Ohio State’s head coach may have exceeded the expectations of most Buckeye fans.
The team went 13-1, won its third straight Big Ten title, curb-stomped Michigan, made the College Football Playoff, and came within a play or two from the national championship game.
That’s a lot to live up to. Entering Day’s second season in charge, there are several lingering questions surrounding the program that will determine whether the Buckeyes can take the next step.
The first is team leadership. OSU lost captains like J.K. Dobbins, Chase Young, Jordan Fuller, and K.J. Hill. The status of C.J. Saunders is still somewhat up in the air.
That leaves only DE Jonathon Cooper and LB Tuf Borland as returning captains, and leaves a big hole that younger players will need to step in and fill.
“I think as we get going and we start to practice and go through work outs we want to find out who the new leaders are going to be,” Day said. “We lost some really good leaders and some guys who declared for the draft. Those were big leaders for us. We’re going to need some guys to step into those roles.”
It seems likely that QB Justin Fields will be one of the players who does that. As a second-year starter and Heisman finalist, Fields will almost certainly be one of the team’s captains.
So will some combination of returning OL Thayer Munford, Josh Myers, and Wyatt Davis. Chris Olave will almost certainly take over the leadership role in the wide receiver room.
LB Pete Werner will probably fill one of the defensive captain spots, as will CB Shaun Wade.
But there is one unit which doesn’t have a clear returning starter. That’s a concern for Day – not just due to leadership, but also production.
“Obviously in the running back room, those guys will be pretty green. Master (Teague) played some this year, but we’re going to have to replace J.K.,” said Day.
Dobbins was singled out throughout spring and fall camps, and then during the season as the player who was most standing out on the team. He changed his diet and workout routine with a singular focus on excellence. That sparked him to the first 2,000-yard rushing season in Ohio State history and made him a natural leader for the rest of his unit.
Master Teague leads the returning rushers, having racked up 789 yards and four touchdowns in 2019. He was dominant throughout the season, but managed only nine yards on seven carries in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson. That may have created a little more uncertainty around the race for the starting job.
Marcus Crowley was impressive in limited action, rushing for 237 yards and a score in just seven games before a knee injury ended his season. It’s not yet clear whether he’ll be able to practice this spring.
Demario McCall and Steele Chambers both got limited touches on offense in 2019, and Miyan Williams will join the room this year as a true freshman.
The Buckeyes need one or more of that group to step up to replace Dobbins’ role, both on and off the field.
On the other side of the ball, there’s not even a question where the biggest concern lies.
“In the back end there we’re losing some really good players there with Jordan (Fuller), Damon (Arnette) and Jeff (Okudah) leaving. So some corners will have to step up. But that’s college football. You’re always going to have turnover,” Day said.
The defensive backfield will have to be almost entirely rebuilt, and it’s still not official which coach will be doing that rebuilding job. Kerry Coombs is widely considered the favorite, but Day said there’s no official agreement in place.
Whether it’s Coombs or someone else coaching the defensive backs, they will have one solid building block to start with. The return of Shaun Wade gives OSU a lockdown corner with the size to match up with taller outside receivers, and the quickness to stay with the shifty little guys in the slot.
Beyond that, there are questions. Josh Proctor is the likely front-runner to replace Fuller at deep safety. Players like Cameron Brown, Sevyn Banks, and Amir Riep saw extensive action at corner in 2019. To Day, that’s a major positive.
“The good news is a lot of our guys played. In those first 11 games, those guys were all playing in the second half. So there’s a lot of experience there,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s going to come down to our leadership and how our guys lead and how hungry and accountable our guys are.”