Exclusive: Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann speaks about health of team, start of preseason
Even in a normal year, this would be a challenging type of preseason for Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann.
Now, navigating injuries and the task of assimilating various roster pieces into a fully formed unit in time for the season’s start is further complicated by safety protocols, COVID-19 testing and the general challenges that come with attempting to compete at a high level in the midst of a global pandemic.
Then there’s the matter of the quarantine goatee that the coach, who is entering his fourth season with the Buckeyes, has been endeavoring to grow despite the protestations of his wife, Lori. The facial hair had a public unveiling when Holtmann posted a video to social media of himself leaving Value City Arena and hearing the sounds of the Ohio State football team going through practice at their adjacent facility.
“It’s really patchy,” Holtmann told The Dispatch with a laugh. “It’s really a bad look, and you can quote me on that. We’ll see how long I stick with it, but it’s really a bad look.”
It’s also low on the list of priorities for Holtmann, who in a wide-ranging interview about the start of the season said he remains excited about the potential of his team once it is fully assembled. When that will happen is still somewhere in the foggy distance, as the Buckeyes continue to deal with a variety of injuries to key players. Neither Seth Towns (knee) nor Musa Jallow (ankle) has participated in drills one week into practice, although the hope is that they can begin non-contact work before long.
A waiver for Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos was denied Wednesday, and although the Buckeyes are appealing, Sotos' absence adds uncertainty to a rotation Holtmann said is also dealing with a few other bumps and bruises.
“I feel like the good things are, our leadership has been really good,” Holtmann said. “I feel like our guys have progressively practiced harder. I think we’ve seen some real improvement in guys in the short term, from practice one to practice five. Those are the things that I feel really good about.
“The challenges, I would say, are that we’re just not in the kind of shape we need to be right now because of a variety of reasons. We’re not in as good of shape as we were this time last year, and that’s been noticeable.”
High among the reasons is the lengthy layoff the players have endured since the 2020 postseason was canceled in March as the pandemic took hold. With an eye on returning to full-go as cautiously as possible, Holtmann said he’s instructed strength and conditioning coach Quadrian Banks to focus more on strength than conditioning in order to help prevent soft-tissue injuries associated with trying to do too much work too quickly.
That’s not even considering the constant vigil that is trying to avoid contracting the virus.
“The biggest concerns that all of us have is how do we keep our players and our staff safe,” Holtmann said. “That’s our biggest concern, and I think beyond that is how do you deal with the obvious interruptions that are going to happen when you’re not in an NBA-type bubble. You’ve seen it in every sport that’s been in this soft bubble where they’ve had some interruptions. I think you’re trying to mitigate risk as much as possible, but it’s a challenge.”
Starting Monday, the Buckeyes will begin daily COVID testing. While the NCAA will require all teams to test three times per week, Ohio State’s daily level of testing will be uniform across the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes will open the season in the Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Nov. 25. They will undergo daily testing while there, and after playing three games in as many days will return to host Morehead State on Dec. 2 and Alabama A&M three days later.
Visiting teams will be tested the day before they play the Buckeyes and again on game day, Holtmann said. Big Ten teams have played two December conference games for the past three years, and that number is likely to double this year so teams can try to get in as many games as possible while campuses are mostly empty.
In the meantime, Ohio State coaches are wearing masks while conducting practices, encouraging their players to socially distance and isolate as much as possible so that they get a chance to start figuring out answers to all the questions about this year’s team.
“I don’t think there’s any question those teams across the country who have five starters returning, four starters returning, as long as those guys are healthy they’re going to have an advantage to start the season, for sure,” Holtmann said. “I think the good thing is Kyle (Young), E.J. (Liddell), Duane (Washington Jr.), CJ (Walker), Justin (Ahrens), those (healthy) guys returning has helped us because it’s a core group.
“It’s good to have some of that consistency. The reality is we’re implementing an important piece in Justice (Sueing), our two freshmen and then hopefully we can get some of these (injured) guys back.”