On the day Ohio State began winter conditioning, Clemson and LSU played for the College Football Playoff title.

Beginning that grind Jan. 13 was not what the Buckeyes had in mind, but there's no hiding from the disappointment. Mickey Marotti doesn't want it any other way.

Ohio State's assistant athletic director for football sports performance — a fancy title for strength and conditioning coach — is known for his tell-it-like-it-is style. The reminders of the 29-23 loss to Clemson in a playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl cannot be escaped.

“There's a sign in the weight room,” Marotti said Wednesday in a chat with reporters.

What does the sign say?

“Whatever the score was,” he said.

The idea of soft-pedaling the pain out of concern it's still too fresh was dismissed.

“Throw it right at them,” Marotti said. “It's real.”

So is the Buckeyes' determination to get back to the playoff and beyond. They're early in the process, but Marotti likes what he has seen so far.

It starts with quarterback Justin Fields. A year ago, Fields had just arrived as a transfer from Georgia, unsure about everything. After a season in which he was a Heisman Trophy finalist, Fields is now the unquestioned foundation of the team.

“He's earned a reputation of being a hard worker,” Marotti said. “He knows he's the leader now. He knows what needs to be done. He has a whole different mindset of the offense and where that needs to go. He knows that he has to do a great job with those young receivers.”

As for Fields' sprained knee, which limited him late in the season, Marotti said the quarterback is training without restrictions.

“None. Zero,” he said.

Marotti said the players are divided into three groups for workouts: established veterans, young players still trying to make their mark, and the 14 early-enrollee freshmen. Marotti had all of them answer a six-question self-evaluation addressing goals and areas of needed improvement.

Each player's questionnaire is posted on the outside of his locker for all to see.

“So if someone needs help, a leader grabs them and says, 'This isn't your goal. You're not doing it.' Whatever it is. So it's kind of cool,” Marotti said.

“We're trying to be very transparent, more than we've ever been. We're trying to help each other. If somebody does something right or wrong, we're calling it out. I'm just trying to make them as focused as they can be.”

Marotti said it's too early to make blanket pronouncements about the type of team the Buckeyes will be in 2020. The grind of February awaits before the start of spring practice in early March.

So it remains a time of transition. The latest piece of that is the return of former cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs as defensive coordinator. Marotti loves energy, and no one has more than Coombs.

“He was there first thing in the morning,” Marotti said. “It's awesome. He's in there 5:30 in the morning lifting weights, drinking his coffee, being around the boys talking to everybody lifting weights just like the Energizer Bunny.”

Marotti believes Coombs' two years with the Tennessee Titans will enhance his credibility even more.

“He's seen that side, and most of these kids want to get to that level,” he said. “He's just putting more tools in his toolbox. And that's a big hammer that he's got now.”

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