COLUMBUS — This is not a normal week at Ohio State.
The Buckeyes began their Michigan State preparations with a sense of uncertainty surrounding the entire program after positive COVID-19 tests shut down the facility and cancelled last week’s game against Illinois.
Now the Buckeyes are back in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, but they don’t have their coach, as Ryan Day continues to be in isolation after his own positive test. Ohio State has been forced to make proper arrangements in order to get back onto the football field.
The Buckeyes have had plans for this kind of situation.
“You have to have, certainly, Plan A and Plan B, but you actually have to have C and D because when things happen, they typically happen in bunches,” Day said on the Ryan Day Show on Thursday on 97.1 The Fan. “It’s not like one guy or two guys. Sometimes it can be a lot more than that. At all positions, whether it’s staff or players, we’ve had to really plan ahead and be ready to put these contingency plans in place.
“We have a very veteran coaching staff and Larry [Johnson] has already done a great job of keeping this thing rolling.”
That’s the goal for the Buckeyes against Michigan State on Saturday: Keep rolling. And after they step on the field, the tough part of the week is over. First, they had to find a way to test negative and be on the field. Then, they had to worry about playing a game without their leader in Day.
“I’ll be watching and communicating up until game time, trying to do the best that I can that way,” Day said. “But once the game starts, the coaches have to coach and the players have to play and just go from there. It’ll probably be the hardest three hours of my life. But at that point, you just have to get them into the game and then let them go.”
Lettermen Row is breaking down What We Learned from the still-quarantined Day, acting head coach Larry Johnson and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson as they prepare for an unconventional trip to Michigan State.
Larry Johnson keeps focus on Ohio State players
While Ryan Day is on the shelf for 10 days due to his COVID-19 diagnosis, associate head coach and defensive line coach Larry Johnson has shed those tags and picked up a new one: Interim head coach.
Johnson will become the first ever Black head coach in Ohio State history Saturday at Michigan State, and he’ll finally be a head coach for a college football team for the first time in his career. It’s a big day for the legendary defensive line coach.
But true to form, Johnson doesn’t want any of the attention on him Saturday. The game this week is about the players and team surrounding him.
“It’s going to be a great time — great time on Saturday for our players and everybody involved,” Johnson said.
For Johnson, the massive milestone in his career doesn’t mean much. He is just focused on the team.
Buckeyes tackle lighter practice schedule
The Buckeyes weren’t able to practice as much this week because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 testing, but when they have been on the practice field, the routine has changed.
Day and the staff decided to go with shorter, more efficient practices to keep their players ready for games — but not burnt out as the postseason is coming up.
“We’ve tried to not keep them there as long for practice, but we’ve added a little bit more good-on-good,” Day said. “Cutting down on length of practice and increasing the number of quality reps. We’re hoping that allows us to play faster and get better as the season goes on.”
As the first-team defense goes against the first-team offense, Day and the coaching staff are working to not allow bad habits to creep into practice time. They are hoping that keeps the Buckeyes ready for a game Saturday.
Young defensive backs coming along in secondary
After losing nearly its entire secondary to the NFL last year, Ohio State has struggled in the back end this season, giving up big plays and pivotal scores. And while the defensive backs that have been playing are experienced, the Buckeyes are working to give their younger players in the secondary a chance to show what they can do in game action.
That might start this week, especially for some of the freshmen.
“This would be like, I guess we’d be going into October right now with four games under our belt … but here we are,” Day said. “Those guys have practiced much, much better recently, and we think that we have to get those guys out there to find out what exactly we have there. Whether it’s just this point in the year or missing some guys because of positive tests, it’s time for those younger guys to now step up. Some of those guys, second, third-year guys in the program. It’s about their time.
“Looking forward to seeing some of the younger guys play.”
Jonathon Cooper piloting defense with play, leadership
Ohio State has had an emotional week dating back to Thanksgiving when doubts about the Illinois game began to creep into the program. And after losing their coach for 10 days and dealing with plenty of uncertainty, the Buckeyes have had to lean on their best leader: Jonathon Cooper.
Not only is Cooper the vocal leader and glue that seems to keep the Buckeyes together through the entire process that has been 2020, but he’s also playing the best football of his career, growing more dominant in each game.
He’s been the all-around captain he was expected to be.
“He’s a very powerful guy,” Johnson said. “You look at Jonathon, you think he’s very light, but he’s 255 or 260 with great strength and he’s having a great season. You want to see that from your fifth-year player. Going in to his senior year, really developed, put all the skill sets together, and Jonathon’s done that. He’s practiced well every single day and he’s playing that way, also. I’m really happy with him, the way he’s playing.
“And our players are looking to him for leadership, and he’s doing a good job of providing that.”
Cooper has been the leader all along. That didn’t change once the program needed his leadership the most during the last week.