CHICAGO — Ohio State is certainly aware of the preseason polls, particularly the ones that have the program’s hated rival projected on top of the Big Ten.
But the two-time defending conference champions aren’t spending any time worrying about them.
For starters, the votes don’t actually mean anything on the field. The Buckeyes also have recent history on their side both when it comes to winning both the league and The Game. And they have more than enough motivation to go claim a third straight title without needing to put up bulletin-board material that has Michigan picked to finally knock off Ohio State.
“I think people read it,” Day said. “I think our guys read it, they see it. Especially with social media, it’s more available than ever. But that’s not something that we focus on. I’ve talked to our guys about the expectations at Ohio State couldn’t be any higher year in and year out. We know that. … But in the end, what matters is if we win the game, and the only thing that’s going to help us do that is if we get better day in and day out and focus on right now.
“We have a lot to prove. This is a new staff. This is a new team. We haven’t done anything yet. … It’s going to come down to proving it on the field. That’s what matters in the end. We’ve got to do it as a staff. We’ve got to do it as offense, defense and special teams.”
The Buckeyes have more than enough talent to claim the hardware that was on display to Day’s right on stage at the Hilton Chicago on Thursday.
And here’s what Lettermen Row learned about the program after an afternoon of interviews with the first-year coach, safety Jordan Fuller, defensive end Jonathon Cooper and wide receiver K.J. Hill in the Windy City.
Ohio State will have a quarterback competition
The most likely outcome hasn’t changed at all. But Ryan Day also isn’t going to deviate from the plan he laid out to get there.
No matter how heavily the odds might favor Justin Fields heading into training camp, the Buckeyes aren’t ready to name him the starting quarterback right now.
“One of our core philosophies is that you don’t just get given the starting position,” Day said. “You have to earn everything you get around here, and he hasn’t done that. The hard thing for everybody to realize is that he is coming off the heels of Dwayne Haskins. I think a lot of people believe that Dwayne went from zero to 60 so fast and he just kind of jumped into the Heisman Trophy race and that all happened [quickly]. Well, that was a very different scenario than Justin Fields.
“Justin hasn’t won the job yet, and that’s the first step in all of this. I know everybody wants to get way ahead of this and start talking about the Heisman, but how about winning the starting quarterback job first? You can’t win the job when you’re just learning the offense.”
Fields has another critical month ahead of him to absorb that playbook, but given the makeup of the depth chart at quarterback, it’s still almost a certainty that his dynamic skills and head start on Kentucky transfer Gunnar Hoak will make him the eventual pick to lead the attack.
Ohio State just isn’t ready to call off the race yet.
Plenty of other Ohio State jobs up for grabs
Even with so many veterans returning for the Buckeyes, the list of surefire starters isn’t all that long heading into August.
Ohio State will lean heavily on tailback J.K. Dobbins. It knows what it has at wide receiver with K.J. Hill, Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor returning as seniors. Thayer Munford will be the left tackle, Chase Young will be the star at defensive end, Malik Harrison is going to be on the field a ton at linebacker and a healthy Jordan Fuller will be at safety.
That’s a pretty decent head start, of course. But the Buckeyes are just as openly embracing competition like the one at quarterback at every other position — even when it’s not hard to identify the favorites to claim key roles.
“August is going to be a big month for us,” Day said. “The battle is really going to happen in August.”
The Buckeyes will have a handful of them at linebacker, and Day indicated that he would like to see a rotation with perhaps as many as six guys playing there. Ohio State has young safeties and cornerbacks fighting to crack the rotation, rising defensive tackles looking to make an impact and a couple spots open on the offensive line. Day even pointed out that the competition is fierce among the backup tight ends trying to be the second guy on the field.
So, Ohio State isn’t going to show up with an official depth chart when practice starts on Aug. 2. Instead, Day will use the first couple weeks to let the Buckeyes battle.
Urban Meyer still casts big shadow
The trip to Chicago started with a mini-controversy as Jim Harbaugh took a shot at Urban Meyer, which only added to the obvious questions Day was going to get about replacing a legend.
It’s perhaps not fair to the new coach that so much attention was paid to the old one in Chicago, but that’s just the reality of the situation for Day. And he didn’t seem to mind paying homage to one of his most important mentors.
“I think the easy thing to do is to ask how are you different than Urban Meyer,” Day said. “That’s not something I really like to answer — because first off, you don’t replace a legend. You don’t replace one of the best football coaches in the history of the game.
“What you can do is just be yourself, and I think that’s what I’m doing.”
So far, that’s working perfectly as Day builds one of the most impressive recruiting classes in the country. But until he gets on the field and starts winning games, the Meyer conversation isn’t going away.
Expectations soaring for Silver Bullets
No extra reminders were needed for Jordan Fuller and Jonathon Cooper, but they got plenty of them anyway.
After the worst statistical season on defense in school history, those two captains were tasked with assessing what went wrong a year ago, detailing the changes being made to fix it and explain why there’s confidence the Silver Bullets can get the job done again.
Both patiently checked off all those boxes, and there’s good reason for the optimism at Ohio State — primarily because of all the depth, talent and experience on hand.
“It’s crazy,” Cooper said. “Even with everything that happened, we still went 13-1 and won the Rose Bowl. That’s huge, but sometimes people don’t really see that because of all the negative stuff that happened. I understand that, I get that. But if our defense takes that next step and plays like the Silver Bullets and our offense [stays] where it’s at, there’s nothing we can’t do.”