Just before a meeting among some Ohio State coaches earlier this season, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson pulled Ryan Day aside to offer advice.
Wilson urged Day to become immersed in the game plan for the offense, which was to be installed over the following practices.
If Day, who has remained the Buckeyes’ primary play-caller in his first full season as head coach, was to succeed in his dual role, continued involvement was paramount.
“If he doesn't get a comfort level in practice, he's not going to be comfortable wanting to call it or do it (in a game),” Wilson said. “There's got to be the right amount of time that he gets with our staff, or what we're putting on the practice tape, and we're getting the looks we need, that he has confidence in what's going on.”Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter
Wilson faced a similar challenge when he led Indiana for six seasons, holding play-calling responsibilities in addition to being the head coach.
Last week, he expounded on some of the guidance he had given Day.
“If he feels good, he's going to be aggressive in the play-calling, aggressive in the direction in your team's attack mode,” Wilson said.
Ohio State’s coaching staff has a distinct arrangement this season.
Rather than running the offense and defense, Day spends most of his time in offensive game-planning or overseeing special teams.
Prior to the season, he said he would have “very little” involvement with defensive game-planning, an approach he maintained through the first six weeks of the regular season.
It has largely worked.
The Buckeyes are 6-0 and entered week 7 ranked No. 7 in the nation in total offense (534.5 yards per game) and No. 3 in total defense (234 yards per game). No other team was ranked in the top 10 in both categories.
Day entrusts most of the defensive preparation to Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison, newly hired co-coordinators.
“When you’re running your side of the ball, you really want to do it your way,” Day said. “And too many cooks in the kitchen isn't good. So those guys are doing their deal and then they obviously report to me, and whatever they think is best we'll have a conversation about it, move forward.”
The improvement on defense has been one of the bigger turnarounds in college football.
While the Buckeyes had a record-setting season on offense last fall, with Day serving as offensive coordinator, they were No. 71 in total defense and allowed a school-worst 25.5 points per game.
Mattison thinks the delineation of coaching roles has even allowed the defensive staff to take advantage of Day’s offensive mind.
“When you have the expertise that he has in the offensive part, and you try to go two ways, it doesn't work for anybody,” Mattison said, “and he does such a great job with the offense.”
When Day was elevated from offensive coordinator to replace Urban Meyer, the move was compared to Oklahoma tapping Lincoln Riley, its offensive whiz, to be head coach a few years ago. Riley, like Day, has remain focused on the offense.
If Day has a hand in defense, it involves more big-picture stuff and contributing to the game plan.
“He has suggested things that would really hurt him on offense,” Mattison said. “And we've listened and we’ve added some of those things, and they've been very good for us.”
After each game, Day said he reviews game film with the defensive coaches. They review each position group and rehash what went well or what didn’t.
Much of their discussion involves certain players and rotations. Then, as the defensive coaches move toward preparing for their next opponent, Day becomes more hands-off.
“Sometimes we have conversation,” he said, “but those guys have owned it.”
If Day were to have a larger hand in shaping the Buckeyes’ defensive game plans, Wilson feared his boss might become worn out. There’s a long list of job duties for college football head coaches beyond preparing for games, from recruiting to the various booster and media engagements around town.
When Wilson was an assistant at Oklahoma, he said then-coach Bob Stoops reminded them to remain clear-minded and rested.
“Coaches need to be fresh,” Wilson said, “because you’re more confident, more aggressive, more assertive.”
For that reason, his big emphasis has been to help Day remain “in sync without wearing him out, so he can be aggressive.”
Day could have been too consumed if he attempted to serve as the play-caller for the offense and have a larger hand in the day-to-day defensive game plan.
“You have to be with that group that you're with a lot of time,” Mattison said. “You can't just step in and say, 'I’m going to do this now and then come back.' He spends a lot of his time with the offense.”