Jim Knowles’ adherence to a tight rotation on defense, particularly on the back end, is well-documented at this point. And that’s exactly what we saw in the season opener.
Only three safeties (Ronnie Hickman, Tanner McCalister and Lathan Ransom) played more than five snaps against Notre Dame. At linebacker, Tommy Eichenberg, Steele Chambers and Cody Simon were the only Buckeyes to see the field at all. Starting cornerbacks Denzel Burke and Cameron Brown were the only players at their position to take a defensive snap. Even the defensive line didn’t quite reach the 12-man rotation Larry Johnson said we might see this season, with 10 linemen seeing time and just seven playing double-digit snaps.
On offense, injuries to Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming forced the Buckeyes to play Xavier Johnson and Jayden Ballard more than they expected to. Other than that, there weren’t a whole lot of surprises on that side of the ball either. In total, just 52 Buckeyes played against the Fighting Irish – fewer than any game last season
That should change against Arkansas State, who Ohio State is favored to roll by 44 points on Saturday.
“I think in this first game, just the way it played out with the number of plays, number of possessions, there really wasn’t much of an opportunity to get guys in the game. I think that as the season goes on there’ll be more of an opportunity to do that,” Day said during a press conference Thursday. “Certainly on special teams, but on offense and defense as well. We have some talented guys out there. But we’ll see.
“Whatever it takes to win the game first, and then we’ll go from there. But yeah, we want to start getting more and more guys in the game. You know, guys deserve to play. And I think when you start to see more plays, then that will happen.”
The dominant performance of the Ohio State defense and run-heavy approach of the Buckeye offense in the second half meant fewer opportunities for many scarlet and gray players who might have thought they’d see the field more in Week 1. The Irish had the ball for just 10:26 of the final 30 minutes of action, and just over four minutes in the final quarter.
Notre Dame ran just 20 plays in the second half, which left the Buckeye defensive coaching staff with just 50 snaps to share between its on-field personnel. And there wasn’t a whole lot of sharing going on.
Buckeye captain Kourt Williams, a potential starter at bandit safety in the spring who seemed to be an ideal fit to slow Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer down in the matchup, didn’t get a single snap. The same goes for No. 3 corner Jordan Hancock and backup linebackers Teradja Mitchell, Palaie Gaoteote and Chip Trayanum.
Anyone expecting to see five-star freshmen Sonny Styles or CJ Hicks get a crack in their first college football games left the Shoe disappointed. Not a single Ohio State freshman saw the field on offense or defense, and only two (Jayden Fielding and Caden Curry) got a look on special teams.
But a season-opening matchup with the No. 5 team in the country – and under the lights at the Shoe, no less – it was hardly the time for Ohio State to clear its benches. Especially in a game that the Buckeyes trailed at the half. If all goes according to plan against the Red Wolves, though, there should be plenty more Buckeyes on the field for the second game of the season.
For fifth-year defensive back Josh Proctor, who started the season opener at bandit safety, that means a shot at redemption after a rocky start to the year. Proctor missed a tackle on the opening play of the game for the Notre Dame offense, which picked up 54 yards (plus 15 for a penalty) as a result.
Ransom received nearly every snap at the position after that, but Day and the Buckeye coaching staff hold firm that Proctor will remain a valuable piece for the Ohio State defense moving forward.
“We’re gonna need Josh. Josh is going to have to play for us. And he’ll play a significant amount this year, for sure,” Day said Tuesday.
On offense, a lopsided halftime score may even lead to the first action of the season from sophomore quarterback Kyle McCord and the first-ever collegiate appearance of top-50 freshman passer Devin Brown. McCord was named the Buckeyes’ backup ahead of the season opener and has 38 career pass attempts under his belt already, but Brown impressed during the spring and could show his potential late against an overmatched Arkansas State team.
“Whatever it takes to win the game first, and then we’ll go from there. But yeah, we want to start getting more and more guys in the game. You know, guys deserve to play.”– Ryan Day
Day said either one must be ready to go at a moment’s notice this season, and Week 2 might be the first time they’re called upon.
“They’re all getting reps and trying to get better. At the end of the day, when you’re a backup quarterback, you’re one snap away,” Day said. “And sometimes that doesn’t feel that way. But you have to be mature enough. CJ was in that boat in the past, almost every quarterback has been in that situation. So what you can’t do is all of a sudden find yourself in a game and be like, ‘Wow, I wasn’t quite prepared for that,’ or, ‘The game’s moving faster than I expected.’ You can’t do that. And that’s going to be the challenge.
“So whenever they have an opportunity to get in the game and play, they gotta be competitive excellence just like everybody else. And I know they’re working hard to prepare for that moment.”
Before the Notre Dame game, Day said freshman running back Dallan Hayden might make an appearance behind TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams, but never got his chance during the close game. Against the Red Wolves, it seems likely that the Tennessee native will get the first carry of his college career.
Aside from Hayden, Hicks, Styles and Curry, Buckeye freshmen Kye Stokes, Jyaire Brown, Kaleb Brown, Kyion Grayes and Kenyatta Jackson have all also shed their black stripes prior to the start of the season and could see their first action on Saturday.
Of course, there’s always a chance that the Red Wolves make things more interesting than anticipated and force the Buckeyes to rely more on their top players. But odds are Ohio State will get an opportunity to test out a deeper rotation at several positions on Saturday, which should be exciting for scarlet and gray supporters.