Ryan Day has had time to adjust to being physically separated from his Ohio State football players. It has not gotten easier.
Since the Woody Hayes Athletic Center was closed after only three spring practices in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, communication between coaches and players has been done remotely.
Strength coach Mickey Marotti hasn’t been able to breathe fire of motivation in the weight room. The bond among teammates that comes from collective suffering and the camaraderie of the locker room can’t develop as usual.
"I think as time goes on, it’s getting harder," Day told a Toledo radio station in an interview on Friday morning. "This is a time when our team really comes together and we build an identity together. The strength conditioning part of our program is kind of the backbone of our program, and not being able to do that together as a group is a challenge."
Instead, the Buckeyes are scattered around the country, from New York City (Matthew Jones) to Hawaii (Enokk Vimahi).
"We’re not allowed to require them to do anything," Day said on a conference call with reporters last Sunday, referring to NCAA rules limiting the direct involvement of coaches.
"We’re allowed to give them a workout plan that they can do. And then they can communicate with the strength coaches, but not the (position) coaches themselves. There’s a lot of rules there that the NCAA has imposed."
That’s not to say Day and position coaches have taken a hands-off approach with their players. Quite the opposite. Via Zoom videos and other social media, they have stayed in close touch.
"We just challenged our guys that it’s all about our discipline," Day said. "We had a leadership meeting last week and talked to the older guys about challenging the young guys and trying to hold those guys accountable by units."
Under previous coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes stressed the importance of building cohesion among position groups. It was based on the military principle that the bonds are stronger within smaller units than big ones because of the relationships formed in smaller groups. That philosophy has continued under Day.
"I think you have to do more than just talk football," defensive line coach Larry Johnson said. "We try to do motivation videos, stuff that really makes sense to our players to touch their hearts. And then there’s really a lot of interaction between our players. There’s conversation about leadership and our culture."
Johnson recently led a discussion with his linemen about Kobe Bryant and the late NBA star’s vision of what it takes to be a winner.
"Our players are really engaged," Johnson said. "They love talking about those things and watching videos about leadership. I think that’s what makes a difference to our players. You’re not only just talking football, you’re feeding their souls, as I call it, and giving them ample opportunity to grow as young men."
Virtual meetings can keep players’ minds engaged. But there is no real substitute for the physical work that that Marotti oversees. Gyms are closed and it’s doubtful that players have sufficient weights at home to simulate what they’d do at the Woody.
On the radio show, Day said one of his players refilled gallon-sized milk cartons with sand to get in some weight work.
"They’re trying to be creative about how they can stay in shape, but this is certainly a challenging time," he said.
That includes their diet. Some players are on a program to add weight, some to lose it. Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa said players have been given meal plans to follow.
"The good thing is, from coach Marotti to the nutritionists to everybody that we have in that department, we’re in constant communication with them," Studrawa said. " ‘What are you eating? How much do you weigh?’ "
Monitoring players is all OSU coaches can do. Day said that coaches have enlisted parents to make sure players are staying on track. But in the end, the responsibility rests with the players.
If there’s any consolation to Day, it’s that all college football programs are in the same boat. Self-discipline and self-motivation will be required of all players to get ready for the season — if one is to be played.
"This is a test to find out how much discipline we have, and can we gain an edge against our opponent?" he said.