Ahead of the 2019 season, there was doubt about how a first-year starting quarterback and a first-year head coach would fare for the Buckeyes.
Now with junior quarterback Justin Fields and head coach Ryan Day returning with a roster that has had its fair share of preseason accolades, Ohio State looks primed to avenge the shortcoming in the Fiesta Bowl that doomed the 2019 campaign. While the roster is equipped to handle adversity on the field, it is the challenge of getting on the field that has filled this offseason with a great amount of uncertainty.
The Big Ten has made efforts to give its student-athletes the best chance to play a football season by announcing a conference-only schedule that will provide more flexibility to better handle COVID-19 setbacks, but the conference acknowledged that the adjustment may still not be enough.
“As we continue to focus on how to play this season in a safe and responsible way, based on the best advice of medical experts, we are also prepared not to play in order to ensure the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes should the circumstances so dictate,” the Big Ten said in a statement July 9.
While the decision is an effort to play football in the fall, other conferences around the country have dismissed the possibility of playing football in 2020. In the Football Championship Subdivision, the Ivy and Patriot leagues are among five conferences that have announced the postponement of athletics until 2021.
Following the theme, the California Interscholastic Federation announced Monday a modified calendar that will see high school athletics shift to the spring semester. The decision will potentially push the end of the football season into the month of April.
Despite a potential cancellation of the season, numerous Buckeyes have already been placed on preseason award watch lists due to their stellar play from a season ago.
A trio of Ohio State linebackers landed on the Butkus Award watch list, which is awarded to the top linebacker in the country. Seniors Baron Browning and Pete Werner join graduate Tuf Borland on the list; all three played key roles on the Buckeyes’ top ranked defense from last season.
With spring practices being canceled on March 13, linebackers coach Al Washington said that the upperclassmen in the group, including the watch list members, may be even more fresh and prepared for the season ahead.
“The silver lining, if you will, is we have guys that have played a lot of football, so you know what they can do,” Washington said in a conference call April 22. “Without taking the hits that you necessarily have in the spring. So, looking at it through those lenses through a guy like Justin Hilliard, guys like Pete [Werner] or Tuf [Borland] or a guy like Baron [Browning], those guys can come back with a little more spring in their step.”
Also on the defensive end, junior cornerback Shaun Wade landed on the Bednarik Award watch list, which is given to the top defensive player in the country. If the season is able to be played, Wade has the opportunity to become the second straight Buckeye to win the award, as former Ohio State defensive end Chase Young took home the honor in 2019.
Wade wrestled with the decision of entering the 2020 NFL draft, before ultimately deciding to stay in Columbus for his redshirt junior season. With former Buckeyes Jeffrey Okudah and Damon Arnette heading to the NFL, Wade’s role in the secondary has greatly increased as he will take over the top corner spot.
Day said that Wade belongs among the elite names in college football.
“Shaun coming back was huge,” Day said in a March 4 press conference. “I think Shaun, in my opinion, should be considered the top corner in the country coming back in all of football.”
On the offensive side of the ball, senior tight end Luke Farrell was placed on the Mackey Award watch list, which is presented to the nation’s top tight end. Farrell hauled in seven receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns last season.
After a breakout campaign in 2019, junior wide receiver Chris Olave was placed on the Biletnikoff Award watch list, given to the nation’s top receiver.
Olave led the Buckeyes in receiving yards last season with 840 and hauled in 48 receptions with 12 of which were for touchdowns.
Wide receivers coach Brian Hartline said that the Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson weighed heavily on Olave’s mind but that he has turned that into motivation to become one of the nation’s elite receivers in 2020.
“It hit him a different way, but I think that it has a chance to have a ripple effect in his career and just recalibrate, not make it any better because he already works hard, but just to enhance where he thought he was,” Hartline said in a conference call April 22. “I think he’s pretty motivated on wanting to be the best player in the country.”
Olave’s quarterback also finds himself on a preseason watch list.
After a 2019 campaign that saw him in New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist, Fields was placed on the Davey O’Brien Award watch list, an honor given to the top quarterback in the country.
Fields had the top touchdown-to-interception ratio in the country in 2019, with 41 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Fields was also a threat on the ground, adding 10 rushing touchdowns with 484 rushing yards.
Fields will be the first quarterback that Day will coach in consecutive seasons, allowing the signal caller to open up the playbook a little more. With a more open playbook, Fields is primed for another big season at the helm of the Ohio State offense.
“I’m proud of his development from where he was at this point last year to where he is now,” Day said in a March 4 press conference. “In terms of this past season, as time went along, he got more and more responsibility and now it’s year two.”
Fields will be well-protected behind an offensive line that will feature three players from the Outland Trophy watch list, an award given to the top offensive lineman in the country. Senior Thayer Munford accompanies redshirt juniors Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers on the list.
“Those guys do a great job of telling everybody what they need to do, what they need to get done,” offensive line coach Greg Studrawa said in an April 22 conference call.
There is uncertainty if the watch lists will ever get the chance to evolve into award winners, but the Buckeyes are looking to do their part to inspire positive momentum toward a season.
With Ohio’s COVID-19 cases surging in July, Ohio State student-athletes and coaches alike have taken to social media with #IWantASeason. In order to encourage the public to wear a mask in order to limit the spread of COVID-19, Ohio State student-athletes and coaches are sharing video messages that ask people to wear a mask so athletics can happen in the fall.
While the season itself remains unclear, the desire for the 2020 Buckeyes to have the opportunity to play is undeniable.
“We have a number of athletes who have an opportunity to have future careers or future opportunities in their sports post-graduation or post-this season,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said in a July 9 conference call. “I want to give them that chance.”