Ability to change key to Day's success
During the past two seasons as a walk-on quarterback, Kory Curtis held a front-row view of Ryan Day calling plays for the Ohio State offense.
Curtis marveled at Day’s approach during games. As much time as he spent during the days before kickoff piecing together a game plan, providing the quarterbacks with detailed packets, he never seemed too attached to veer away from it once trouble arose.
“He wasn't a person who would get stuck on the script that he had,” Curtis said. “We would have 10 plays that we would want to run at the beginning of the game, that we'd know would work against them. And then if the first couple doesn't work, he'll scrap it, do something else, then scrap it. He'll figure out how to beat them a different way. He learns on the fly fast.”
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The approach remains an important part of Day’s offensive background, a chief reason why athletic director Gene Smith tapped him to replace Urban Meyer in December and invited comparisons to Lincoln Riley, another hotshot play-caller who was promoted two seasons earlier to coach at Oklahoma, and to considerable success.
Quarterbacks who have played for Day said his strength comes from the adjustments made during games and his willingness during the offseason to devise schemes that fit their skill set. If he’s an offensive mastermind, it’s due to his adaptability as much as innovative schemes.
“He's one of those guys who’s very unselfish with his philosophy,” said Tyler Murphy, who was the starting quarterback at Boston College in 2014 when Day was offensive coordinator. “He’s going to do what’s best for the team. He’s not going to implement an offense and say, 'It's my way or the highway.’”
Day developed the attitude nearly two decades earlier while playing quarterback at New Hampshire for Chip Kelly, who was then the budding offensive coordinator for the Wildcats before finding success as a head coach.
Kelly’s strategy involved trying new ideas. During spring practices, he would trot out new formations and plays each week in their football laboratory. They stuck with what worked and discarded what didn’t.
“I think him being around that was just like, ‘Hey, I'm going to be the same way, kind of just experiment, see what works and what doesn’t, see what guys are good at, see what they're not good at, and just go from there,’” Murphy said.
Over the years, players listened to Day discuss his time at New Hampshire with Kelly, who remains one of his biggest influences. Kelly, now the coach at UCLA, visited with Day and the Buckeyes during one of their practices in southern California before the Rose Bowl last season. Day served as an assistant on Kelly’s coaching staffs in the NFL in 2015 and 2016.
While shaped by Kelly, circumstances required Day to remain nimble. Over five seasons as an offensive coordinator in college — at Boston College (2013-14) and Temple (2012) before joining the Buckeyes in 2017 — Day oversaw a new starting quarterback each season. Strategies needed to differ.
Last season, Dwayne Haskins Jr., a traditional pocket-style passer, set an Ohio State record with 533 attempted passes. The season before — Day’s first on staff — J.T. Barrett, more of a dual-threat quarterback, threw 371 times and ran nearly twice as often as Haskins.
“To be good, I think you have to be able to be flexible in everything,” Curtis said. “He's not set in his ways.”
Day, who will remain the primary play-caller this season, will again have a new starting quarterback after Haskins left for the NFL. Sophomore Justin Fields, a transfer from Georgia, is expected to be announced as the starter on Monday.
Murphy said he expects Day to feature an offense suited to Fields, who is equally skilled as a runner and passer.
When he played for Day at Boston College, Murphy went through a similar experience. He finished as the team’s leading rusher and had 180 carries as a senior in 2014, a significant change from his predecessor, Chase Rettig, who was the starter in Day’s first season there. Rettig had only 60 rush attempts.
The adjustments made Murphy more comfortable. And Day’s flexibility not only helps his teams but makes them more unpredictable to opponents.
“Having that mindset, going into seasons or games, when teams try to game plan for coach Day, they don’t know what team they’re going to get each year,” Murphy said.
The former quarterbacks said Day usually adjusted his offense during spring practice and preseason training camp. Rettig said the team at Boston College in 2013 learned midway through preseason practices that the team's strength would be the offensive line. So, Day adjusted accordingly and put in more run-oriented schemes.
“It's about playing to your strengths,” Rettig said. “What are we going to be good at? What is our roster entailing that we should be good at?”
The plan worked for the Eagles, as they ended up with a 2,000-yard rusher. Andre Williams finished with 2,177 yards, which remains ninth-most in a season by an FBS running back.
The Buckeyes concluded preseason camp on Saturday. They open the season Aug. 31 against Florida Atlantic at Ohio Stadium.
Curtis recalled one of Day’s more impressive moments as a play-caller during halftime of a 39-38 victory over Penn State in 2017.
The Buckeyes trailed by 11 points. Day altered the passing game, and Barrett threw for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including the winner in the final minutes. After taking the quarterbacks through the adjustments, he gave them a rousing speech to show his confidence.
“You could see the fire in his eyes and the passion he had for the game of football,” Curtis said. “I don’t really know how to explain what happened and what he said, but it was cool. It was just like, we're going to beat them, and we did.”