Ohio State opened spring training on Tuesday with the excitement expected of a team eager to be on the field for the first time in more than two months.
Little significance could be drawn from the brief practice segment open to reporters. The players weren’t in the pads. There was no hit. Coach Ryan Day is treating both practices this week before spring break as light workouts.
In truth, however, the most important work in preparing for the 2022 season began seven weeks ago. Day thought the Buckeyes lacked leadership last year. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said he detected as early as February 2021 that this could be a problem.
Ohio State Football: Did Lack of Team Leaders Contribute to Losses?
This showed up early last season against Oregon and, most egregiously, in the loss to Michigan. When this game started to slide, Ohio State seemed powerless to turn the tide.
Daytime and strength coach Mickey Marotti has a plan in place to address this issue.
First spring training:Cody Simon returns from injury; Learn about Ohio State’s first spring football training
State of Ohio 2022:Looking at the photo of Ohio State Football Scholarships for 2022
“Not to get too deep into what we’ve done, (but) we decided leadership was the #1 thing we needed to do this offseason,” Day said. “Through a process, we ended up explaining to everyone what leadership was and we asked, ‘Who wants to be the leader of the team?’ They then volunteered.
Twenty-four players were elected to a management committee. Two leaders were assigned to each of the team’s 12 units during the offseason program. If a player was late for a meeting, for example, his entire unit had to perform community service for a weekend.
Day likes the results so far.
“I think it’s probably the best we’ve done in an offseason to forge leadership,” he said. “Not that all 24 were great leaders. Some of them were. Some of them weren’t. But there was a lot more leadership based on what we’ve done in the past seven weeks than we’ve had in some time, and that was encouraging.
It wasn’t like the Buckeyes didn’t have leadership among their players last year. But they were a young team, and COVID prevented some of the interaction that can form bonds and camaraderie.
“We were really green,” Day said. “Guys were just trying to line up, play and do well.”
The Buckeyes have a more experienced squad in 2022. Quarterback CJ Stroud returns as a Heisman Trophy finalist. A year ago, it hadn’t launched a college pass. Running back TreVeyon Henderson is a sophomore, not someone who hadn’t played since his junior year of high school. Almost all of the defense’s back seven was new in 2021. Almost everyone is back from that unit.
“When you have a team that has the experience that we have back, you can put more emphasis on leadership,” Day said. “That’s what happened in the second half of the Rose Bowl. The leadership got stronger at halftime. We didn’t have that in the Team Up North game. That’s just the truth.
Now they want to build on the Rose Bowl victory. Each season has its adversity. The Buckeyes want to make sure they rise to the challenge this year instead of withering.
“I think Coach Day and Coach Mick did a good job of putting these players in positions to teach them how to keep people up to standard, how to communicate with them,” Wilson said. “We asked them to judge their group and rate their group at times, so now I have an opinion on you. ‘I didn’t think you trained very hard today. I thought you did good job. I thought you were awesome.’ And not to take it personally, but to be a leader and hold people accountable. Don’t be a fake leader. Be a real leader.
The real measure, Wilson said, will be when the Buckeyes need to convert a key first, run a two-minute drill or get a crucial defensive save.
The offseason has been about mentally preparing for those moments.
“We really wanted to focus on that over the last seven weeks and try to create as many situations as possible,” Day said. “When we have our backs against the wall, we need guys to step in. It was a concentration and an identification. I think we really made a lot of progress there. But the proof will be in the pudding here in the future.