Junior linebacker Trayvon Wilburn engages with a blocking sled in an Ohio State practice

Junior linebacker Trayvon Wilburn runs a drill in an Ohio State practice Aug. 6. | Credit: Courtesy of Ohio State Department of Athletics

Ohio State football practices will look different moving forward as their makeup will now include one of the sport’s basic features: contact. 

In a world where social distancing has overshadowed physical contact, the Big Ten has reached its Sept. 30 deadline for the integration of daily antigen testing for teams in the conference, which allows for the ramping up of contact in practice. Ohio State has been participating in 20-hour training weeks since the Big Ten decided to move forward with an Oct. 24 start date, but the Buckeyes have yet to engage in full-padded practices — until Wednesday. 

For wide receivers coach Brian Hartline, full-contact practice is the next step toward the return of the football season.

“Once we put pads on, it actually becomes football, so we’re looking forward to that,” Hartline said Tuesday in a Zoom call. “We’re looking forward to kinda that marking — really I think that next step and progression — taking this thing up to another level. The closest we’ve been to playing in a long time.”

Leading up to the beginning of full-padded practices, Ohio State had engaged in practice with helmets and spiders, which are foam pads that go over the shoulders.

Although the practices leading up to Wednesday lacked full contact, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said the team has done a “phenomenal job” practicing without pads. 

“When the pads come on you’ve got to start to get a feel for what it’s like to play at the pad level you need to play with, the velocity you need to play with. The way you come off the ball and get off blocks. The way you run through trash. The way you finish tackles,” Wilson said Sept. 25 in a Zoom call. 

Senior cornerback Marcus Williamson said that practicing without pads helped instill the necessary fundamentals. 

Including practicing proper approach and position to make a tackle, Williamson noted the groundwork has been laid for the return of full contact. 

“Once those pads come on, it’s like taking the training wheels off,” Williamson said Sept. 22 in a Zoom call. “Having those practice habits every day and practicing like a professional will really pay off for us as a team.”

Wide receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave said they are excited to get the pads on and participate in contact practice. 

Wilson said that he is personally looking forward to being able to make plays against the Ohio State defense, which he said has “been bailed out on some tackles” in noncontact practices. 

Olave said that he is looking forward to Wednesday practice for the opportunity to improve. 

“I know we ain’t put pads on in so long, but just get back in shape and put the pads back on, start contact, and start real football, I’m really excited,” Olave said Tuesday in a Zoom call. 

Wilson said the eagerness to get back to contact will not supersede safety concerns. 

Losing out on most of spring practice, Wilson said the Buckeyes’ last taste of full contact happened at the end of December in the Fiesta Bowl. 

“I think we’re very smart enough with the medical staff we have and coach (Ryan) Day’s background that we’ll be slow to go and build as we go,” Wilson said. “And I think we’ll probably get as much contact and work in the second week of our start as we will the first week. And because school is going on, almost like the flow of a game week early. It won’t be the old school just practice, practice, practice.”

Hartline echoed the focus on easing the players into live practice in order to avoid injuries. 

The fourth-year coach and former Ohio State player said the full-padded practices are the closest the group will get to real football before playing Nebraska, so he expects the coming weeks to be informative to how the team responds to the more physical elements of football.

“The best team is always the team that blocks the best, tackles the best and is the toughest,” Hartline said. “So, it’s really hard to get any of those without the pads. I think starting Wednesday, we’ll really get a feel for what kind of football team we are currently and where we need to go, what we need to focus on.”