Day wants toughness from his team

Bill Rabinowitz
First-year Ohio State coach Ryan Day has drummed into his players to be tough, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. [Paul Vernon/The Associated Press]

A new college football season has arrived, and coach Ryan Day, like everyone else, has questions about his Ohio State Buckeyes.

How quickly will Justin Fields develop at quarterback after arriving on campus in January? How fast can the revamped offensive line jell? Will the defense really be improved as much as he thinks?

Every season is a mystery that reveals itself game by game. Ohio State has the talent to reach the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes also have enough questions, and a tricky schedule, that losing more than a couple of games for the first time since 2011 isn’t hard to imagine, either.

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The Day era starts in earnest Saturday against Florida Atlantic. The Conference USA program headed by former Southern California coach Lane Kiffin is a four-touchdown underdog. The weather is expected to be ideal.

So on paper, this should be a fairly routine game for the Buckeyes, though opening games are always a bit dicey. Day is not looking past FAU, but he is looking beyond the Owls, in a way. He knows that for the Buckeyes to reach their potential, they will have to prove their toughness, starting Saturday.

That word has been emphasized since Day took over for Urban Meyer. Meyer, of course, was no softie when it came to toughness. But Day has drummed it into his players' heads.

“I think we're talented, and we've recruited at a really high level here," he said. "But I think if you want to go to where we want to go, you have to be tough.”

It starts with being physically tough enough to navigate the Big Ten. As always, the Buckeyes play East Division rivals Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. This year, the Buckeyes play three of the top teams in the Big Ten West — at Nebraska, at Northwestern and against Wisconsin. Next week’s game against Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati Bearcats figures to be challenging as well.

“We’ve kind of talked about what it means to be like Mike Tyson when he was at the top of his game and every week having to bring it,” Day said. “That's the way we are right now in the Big Ten.

“Everybody's trying to knock you out whenever they get a chance, and we can't let that happen. We've got to be strong and tough. Anybody in our schedule can beat us, but at the same time, we can also beat everybody on our schedule.”

Day built his reputation as an offensive guru. Last year, he directed an Ohio State offense that at times made scoring look easy. Day is more interested now in how his team will respond when things aren’t easy.

“If you can't bring it every single week, someone's going to get you,” he said. “There has to be that mental toughness, too, and then you’ve got to be emotionally tough when something doesn't go well.

“So if it's just like, ‘Hey, we just don't have it today,’ that's not good enough. There's no such thing as that. We have to figure out a way to say, ‘No, no, no. This is how it's going to go,’ and impose our will on other teams.”

After all these months of preparation, Day is excited to see his team on the field. He believes that in the heat of a game, players revert to their training. His hope is that the toughness instilled in them will pull them through difficult situations.

“We have to have confidence in that,” he said, “and we will.”


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