Fueled by donor spending sprees, Ryan Day is confident Ohio State can finally break through

COLUMBUS, Ohio — At his postgame news conference after Ohio State’s 30-24 loss to Michigan last November, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day looked defeated and disheartened. He surely realized in that moment that despite winning 88 percent of his games as a head coach, he and his program would now be defined by the unthinkable three-game losing streak to the Wolverines.

More than four months later, sitting in his office at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the 45-year-old Day smiles, giddy and seemingly at ease. He exudes the confidence of a coach who knows how deep his roster is, having brought back nearly all of Ohio State’s young men who could have gone pro while adding some of the most complete transfers in the portal.

“At Ohio State, you have to beat Team Up North and win every other game,” Day said. “If that’s the expectation every year, you like your chances a lot better when you have good players. So, you might as well get the best.

If it weren’t for NIL, Day said, “You certainly wouldn’t have seen what you saw this year with us.”

After an embarrassing 14-3 Cotton Bowl loss to Missouri, Ohio State donors went on a spending spree. With the help of two collectives, The Foundation and The 1870 Society, the program “re-signed” defensive linemen JT Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer and Tyleik Williams, running back TreVeyon Henderson, receiver Emeka Egbuka, cornerback Denzel Burke and guard Donovan Jackson, all of whom were projected first- or second-day draft picks.

“Early on, our (2021) recruiting class was very robust. We knew we were capable of doing something special,” said Jackson, one of six five-star signees in his class. “But at the end of three years here, we didn’t achieve the goals we set out to do. NIL is a controversial topic, but in this case it gave us the confidence to come back and tackle it once again.

With the core of his roster returning, Day entered the portal to plug the few remaining holes. His haul included All-Big 12 quarterback Will Howard (Kansas State), All-SEC running back Quinshon Judkins (Ole Miss), freshman All-American safety Caleb Downs (Alabama) and veteran safety center Seth McLaughlin (Alabama).

The backfield tandem of Henderson and Judkins could be particularly scary. Together they ran for a total of 5,470 yards and 63 career touchdowns.

“We don’t decide who’s in the portal,” Day said. “But when the kids are in, we want to update our roster in some areas.”

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Before the Dec. 29 bowl game, Ohio State was not considered a major player in the NIL-fueled portal market. Indeed, retired AD Gene Smith was one of the loudest critics calling for the NCAA to crack down on collectives’ involvement in recruiting. That was two months before a federal judge in Tennessee ruled that the NCAA cannot enforce rules that prevent collectives from negotiating NIL deals with recruits.

Even after 2023 starting quarterback Kyle McCord entered the portal shortly after last year’s Michigan game, and with third-string freshman Lincoln Kienholz flailing against Missouri, ESPN broadcaster Dave Pasch told the spectators throughout the Cotton Bowl that Day had been adamant Ohio State would not pursue another quarterback.

Five days later, Howard, who had previously visited Miami and USC, committed to the Buckeyes. Significantly, when Downs committed to the Buckeyes on Jan. 19 from Alabama, the Foundation broke the news on Twitter.

Two years ago, Day he told an audience of businessmen it would take $13 million in NIL money to maintain Ohio State’s roster. Today it is believed that the budget is even higher.

“A lot of people have come forward and really helped us,” Day said. “Gene (Smith) is obviously instrumental in this, but I’ve made a lot of calls and a lot of people have come forward. It just goes to show how great the support is here.

With the personnel in place, Day made another big decision: finding a renowned offensive coordinator to take on the playcalling role for the first time in his career. After his initial election, Bill O’Brien, who left in February to become the head coach of Boston College, Day called his former college coach in New Hampshire: Chip Kelly. In a surprising move, Kelly gave up being the head coach of Big Ten-bound UCLA to come work for Day, who worked under Kelly at the Eagles and 49ers before coming to Ohio State in 2018.

“I didn’t think of it that way,” said the 60-year-old Kelly, who liked going back to his roots when he coached UCLA’s quarterbacks before the bowl game. “Coaching football makes me happy. It’s that simple.

“I never wanted to be in sports administration, but in some places the head coaching job is turning into that. “I have a hard time asking people for money.”

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That’s Day’s job now.

The fruits of all that fundraising work will be on display Saturday as Fox televises Ohio State’s spring game for the first time. Viewers will have the chance to witness the quarterback battle between Howard and the returning Devin Brown. They’ll get their first look at freshman receiver Jeremiah Smith, who has been so dazzling during spring camp that coaches are already talking about him as a starter.

Smith, the No. 1 recruit in the 2024 class, had been committed to Ohio State for more than a year but caused a stir on the first day of the early signing period last December when he didn’t sign his letter of intent until that night . . The explanation, as reported by Atletico’s Manny Navarro, was that “Smith’s NIL representative was making sure that whatever the Ohio State collective promised Smith during the recruiting process would also be in writing.”

But beyond Smith and soon-to-be sophomores Downs and receiver Carnell Tate, Ohio State’s starting lineup will be made up almost entirely of fourth- or fifth-year players. As many as 17 positions could be filled by players with at least one year of experience as a full-time starter, including nearly all of a defense that finished last season third in the country (4.2 yards per play allowed).

All of this was an intentional push on Day’s part.

“We’ve had talent here in the past, but when you lose guys to the NFL after three years, you can get young again quickly,” he said. “I’ve realized that over the last couple of years, wanting to be talented but also having experience. “I noticed that some of the teams we played against were a little over 21, 22 years old, and I think that’s important.”

He won’t say it, but those teams were from Michigan.

Even with all that talent, though, Ohio State has two question marks — and they happen to be in arguably the two most important positions. One is the offensive line, which struggled at times last season. Returning starters Jackson and tackle Josh Simmons, a 2023 transfer from San Diego State, have the left side locked down, but the right side remains in flux.

And then there’s the quarterback. Although Howard started 27 games and led K-State to the 2022 Big 12 championship, no one would confuse him with Justin Fields or CJ Stroud. He still hasn’t beaten Brown, who was injured early in his first career Cotton Bowl. But Howard also gives the staff an opportunity as the program’s first true dual-threat QB since Fields in 2020.

“We thought Will was a really good fit for our team for a lot of reasons,” Day said. “I’m pretty excited to see how he fits into Chip’s offense.”

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In some ways, “Chip’s offense” was already Ohio State’s offense. It’s pretty much the same passing game that Day brought with him from Kelly’s 49ers when he was hired as OC by Urban Meyer, just with different terminology. Kelly says that on a few occasions he has had to catch himself calling a play by the wrong name during practice.

But Kelly’s impact should be felt most in the running game. Ohio State’s offense under Day has been criticized at times for being too subtle (hence his infamous Lou Holtz outburst after Notre Dame’s win last year). Although Kelly no longer ran the offense he did at Oregon in early 2010, his UCLA teams were still synonymous with a rushing attack. In 2022, with dual-threat Dorian Thompson Robinson at quarterback and Zach Charbonnet behind him, the Bruins led the country at 6.0 yards per carry.

Now he will work with Henderson and Judkins.

“I think (Kelly) appreciates some of the tools he has to work with,” Day said with a smile. “Our passing game was very, very successful, and her running game was very, very successful. So combining the two was fun.”

With all that talent, all the generosity of donors and the large hire of an offensive coordinator, the bar hasn’t been this high in Columbus since Meyer’s Buckeyes came off a national title in 2014. Ending Michigan’s drought will be a basic expectation, but Ohio State must at least play for its first national championship in a decade, a task made more difficult this season with the 12-team playoffs.

“It wasn’t like it was broken,” Day said. “The truth is, the last two years it’s been a breeze to achieve our goals. We didn’t beat our rival in the last two years, that’s one point, but we were one game away against Georgia (in the 2022 semifinal). We’re trying to understand that last 1%, 2%. “Those last shows.”

And Ohio State invested a lot of money to figure out those late plays.

(Photo: Jason Mowry/Getty Images)