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After an Embarrassing Loss, Ohio State Football Donors Went on a Spending Spree

SportAfter an Embarrassing Loss, Ohio State Football Donors Went on a Spending Spree

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

Four-plus months later, sitting in his office at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the 45-year-old Day is smiling, giddy and seemingly at ease. He exudes the confidence of a coach who knows how loaded his roster is, after getting back nearly every one of Ohio State’s juniors who could have turned pro while adding some of the most accomplished transfers in the portal.

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

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

Following 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.

“Coming in, our (2021) recruiting class was very stout. We knew we were able to do something special,” said Jackson, one of six five-star signees in his class. “But at the end of three years here, we didn’t accomplish the goals that we set out to do. NIL is a controversial topic, but in this case, it gave us the reassurance to come back and get after it one more time.”

With the core of his roster returning, Day went into 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 experienced center Seth McLaughlin (Alabama).

The backfield tandem of Henderson and Judkins could be particularly frightening. Together they’ve rushed for a combined 5,470 career yards and 63 career TDs.

“We don’t decide who’s in the portal,” Day said. “But when guys are there, we want to upgrade our roster in certain areas.”

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Before that Dec. 29 bowl game, Ohio State was not considered a major player in the NIL-fueled portal market. In fact, retiring AD Gene Smith was one of the most vocal critics calling on the NCAA to crack down on the involvement of collectives in recruiting. This was two months before a federal judge in Tennessee ruled that the NCAA cannot enforce rules preventing 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 viewers 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. Tellingly, when Downs committed to the Buckeyes on Jan. 19 from Alabama, The Foundation broke the news on Twitter.

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

“We had a lot of people step up and really help us,” said Day. “Gene (Smith) is obviously instrumental in this, but I made a lot of calls, and a lot of people stepped up. It just goes to show you how great the support here is.”

With the personnel in place, Day made one more big decision: finding a renowned offensive coordinator to whom he could hand over play-calling for the first time in his career. After his initial choice, Bill O’Brien, left in February to become the head coach at Boston College, Day placed a call to his former college coach at New Hampshire — Chip Kelly. In a stunning move, Kelly gave up being the head coach at 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 enjoyed returning to his roots when he coached UCLA’s quarterbacks leading up to their bowl game. “Coaching football makes me happy. It’s as simple as that.

“I never wanted to get into athletic administration, but the head coaching job is turning into that at certain places. 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 is televising Ohio State’s spring game for the first time. Viewers will get a chance to check in on the quarterback battle between Howard and returnee Devin Brown. They’ll get their first glimpse of freshman receiver Jeremiah Smith, who has been so dazzling during spring camp that coaches already speak of 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 did not sign his letter of intent until that night. The explanation, as reported by The Athletic’s Manny Navarro, was that “Smith’s NIL rep was making sure whatever Ohio State’s collective had promised Smith during the recruiting process would also be in writing.”

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

All of which was an intentional push by Day.

“We’ve been talented here in the past, but when you lose guys to the NFL after three years, you can quickly get young again,” he said. “I’ve identified that the last couple of years, wanting to be talented but also wanting to be experienced. I’ve noticed some of the teams we played have been a little bit more of 21-, 22-years old, and I think that matters.”

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

For all that talent, though, Ohio State does have two question marks — and they happen to be at 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. While Howard has started 27 games and led K-State to the 2022 Big 12 championship, no one would confuse him for Justin Fields or C.J. Stroud. He’s not yet beat out Brown, who was injured early in his first career start in the Cotton Bowl. But Howard also presents the staff an opportunity as the program’s first true dual-threat QB since Fields in 2020.

“We felt like Will was a really good fit for our team for a lot of reasons,” said Day. “I’m kind of excited to see how he fits in with Chip’s offense.”

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

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 finesse (hence, his infamous Lou Holtz rant after last year’s Notre Dame win). While Kelly no longer runs his early 2010s Oregon offense, his UCLA teams were still synonymous with a power rushing attack. In 2022, with dual-threat Dorian Thompson Robinson at quarterback and star tailback Zach Charbonnet behind him, the Bruins led the country at 6.0 yards per carry.

Now he’ll be working with Henderson and Judkins.

“I think (Kelly) likes some of the tools that he has to work with,” Day said with a smile. “Our pass game has been very, very successful, and his run game has been very, very successful. So as we combine the two of those, it’s been fun.”

What with all that talent, all those donors’ generosity and the splashy offensive coordinator hire, the bar has not been this high in Columbus since Meyer’s Buckeyes were coming off their 2014 national title. Ending the Michigan drought will be a baseline expectation, but Ohio State needs to at least play for its first national championship in a decade, a task made harder this season with the 12-team Playoff.

“This wasn’t like it’s broken,” said Day. “The truth is, we’ve been a play or drive away for the last two years from achieving our goals. We haven’t beaten our rival the last couple of years, that’s stung, but we were one play away against Georgia (in the 2022 semifinal). We’re trying to figure out that last 1 percent, 2 percent. Those last few plays.”

And Ohio State has thrown a lot of money into figuring out those last few plays.

(Photo: Jason Mowry / Getty Images)


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