Ohio State had a massive challenge on its hands facing Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Clemson’s electric offense in the Sugar Bowl.
And now the Buckeyes will face an even bigger test on Monday night, squaring up against Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and two more Heisman finalists in Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (who finished third in the voting) and running back Najee Harris (who finished fifth).
How will the Buckeyes handle that high-powered unit? Will they have to prepare for the return of receiver Jaylen Waddle?
Kerry Coombs, Shaun Wade, Jonathon Cooper, Haskell Garrett, Justin Hilliard, Pete Werner and Marcus Williamson took to the podium on Wednesday to answer those questions and more. A bullet-point rundown of what they discussed:
- Coombs called this season “the most rewarding year” because of the players’ willingness and ability to adapt to the adversity that’s happened and having an eagerness to do “whatever it takes” to have a successful season.
- On the challenge of Alabama’s offense: “This is a great offense. It is a complete offense. They have five All-Americans, a Heisman Trophy winner and a runner-up.”
- He says the Tide not only have great players but a great scheme, and they “always have an answer.”
- Details such as hand placement on the inside of offensive linemen and filling gaps is imperative for Ohio State’s defensive line, Coombs says.
- On Lathan Ransom’s increased role: “He’s just continued to improve every day. … Those are the types of kids that suffer from the structure of the way the summer went and the shortened season.” He says Ransom was doing well in practice and he’s continued to improve and develop: “We’re excited for his future.”
- Coombs believes the Buckeyes’ offense had “a completely different feel to the passing game” once Ryan Day took over. Said Day is “very, very creative in what he does with the passing game” and that the feeling was tangible that it was beginning to change from the moment he arrived.
- Coombs praised Day’s leadership of this team: “He’s a players coach. … He talks to the players all the time. That’s one of his greatest gifts.”
- Day gives the coaching staff suggestions on what to read and watch that don’t have anything to do with football and more so on how to treat the young players on their team.
- Coombs was on staff for the Buckeyes’ Sugar Bowl win over Alabama at the end of the 2014 season. He says the Tide’s evolution of their passing attack “is exceptional.”
- Coombs believes the three-game stretch that included Ohio State winning the 2015 national championship helped solidify Urban Meyer’s recruiting and helped the program take off: “At least for me, that three-game stretch was a game changer here.”
- On a potential return from Jaylen Waddle: “I think you absolutely have to prepare as if he’s gonna return. … He’s a special player. My hat’s off to him. If he can recover and play, those type of stories I think are great for college football.”
- Coombs: “You can’t play a game scared. That’s probably the worst thing you can do.”
- On teaching cornerback techniques on deep balls: “It’s an art to play the deep ball. … It’s really one of those skillsets that get better by doing it. The best way to do that is getting more reps in practice.” But Coombs says it’s a difficult balance to have players gets reps against deep balls while not overworking them in practice.
- On DeVonta Smith: “He’s really, really gifted as a route runner. He’s unbelievable physically. … He catches short balls and makes big plays. He obviously catches deep balls as well as anybody we’ve gone against. … I appreciate good players. He’s a good player. I enjoy watching him play.”
- Wade alluded to Ohio State’s recent five-star cornerback commit Jaheim Singletary, each of whom came from Jacksonville as a highly rated defensive back recruit. He says “it’s crazy” how similar their situations are.
- Wade is familiar with Mac Jones after having played 7-on-7 with him in Jacksonville during high school. Says they called Jones “Money Maker Mac.”
- He believes John Metchie compares to Jaylen Waddle, calling Metchie “a great player with a great future.”
- When asked which Alabama receiver he most wants to face off against, Wade said “you already know who I wanna go up against.” He confirmed that the receiver he wants to play against is DeVonta Smith.
- Wade says Chris Olave is “one of the greatest receivers in college football” and that Olave and Smith have some similarities in height and skill. He says going up against Olave has helped prepare him to face the Heisman Trophy winner.
- Wade says that Josh Proctor is “going to play a big role for us Monday night.” He says Proctor is a ball-hawking safety and he’s “looking forward to seeing him make some plays. … He just needs to be Josh.”
- Wade says all he cares about is “winning this national championship.”
- Cooper on the struggles of a season filled with adversity: “Obviously we haven’t been silent about how hard it’s been in. … But the message as a team is we have one more. There’s nothing left after this. This is why you come to Ohio State.”
- Cooper says he returned for a fifth season after last year’s injury “for my teammates” to “show the world what I can do,” and “to win a national championship.”
- Alabama’s offensive line, which won the Joe Moore award for the nation’s best offensive line, will be the Buckeyes’ biggest challenge of this season: “We have to come out and attack them” like they do with any other team. He says the challenge of facing them “is no different than going against our guys in practice.”
- Cooper says “it’s special” having grown up in Ohio watching guys like Troy Smith excel and get the chance to play for a national title: “I’ll get the chance to reflect on all that later on, but right now my focus is on beating Alabama. … That’s where all my focus and energy is towards.”
- He believes Ohio State has a deep defensive line: “It’s not just one guy. Across the board, we have great players that we can rely on.”
- Having that depth is key to beating an offensive line like Alabama’s, he says.
- Trevor Lawrence got the ball out fast, and Cooper says the defensive line has to play Mac Jones the same way and “do anything you can to make sure the quarterback isn’t comfortable back there.”
- Like Cooper and Pete Werner discussed, Garrett believes the Buckeyes’ “iron sharpens iron” approach in practice will help the defensive line going against Alabama’s offensive line. Playing against guys like Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers, Garrett says, are major helps.
- Garrett says that Taron Vincent “has done an outstanding job” at defensive tackle, and he’s been impressed that Vincent has battled back from injuries to produce in the postseason.
- Garrett recalls seeing Najee Harris at The Opening in high school. He praised Harris’ speed, versatility and physicality. The Buckeyes have “a great challenge ahead of us” with the talent between the two teams now “equated.”
- Alabama’s offensive line is “the best of the best.” Garrett relishes the chance to get to play against them because “you want to play the best. … There’s nothing that gets you more motivated than playing against a great offensive line.”
- Garrett believes the game “will be won in the trenches. No doubt. … If you can’t move offensive and defensive lines, you don’t have a chance, in my opinion.” He says offensive and defensive linemen are “unsung heroes.”
- Each year, Larry Johnson brings something different to the table and gives “a different flavor” based on the personnel among the defensive linemen.
- Johnson: “He’s not about the rah-rah. He touches your soul. … I trust him with anything. Once you believe in him and everything he’s telling you and teaching you, it’ll make your game excel. That’s a testament to him. Once you trust him, the sky’s the limit.”
- Hilliard: “It’s not a secret that Najee Harris is one of the best running backs in college football. … As long as we have 11 guys running to the football, we’ll be all right.”
- After having gone through so many injuries and so much adversity, Hilliard says it “makes it that much sweeter.”
- This is Hilliard’s last game as a Buckeye and the last game for many other seniors. He says they are “pouring their heart into” preparation for the game.
- The team’s leadership and “next man up mentality” has been even more impressive this season and even more imperative to have that mentality with the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19.
- On not considering a return for a seventh year, Hilliard says he doesn’t think he has any more to give to Ohio State after six years of work. He confirms it is “completely” his intention to make this his final game with the Buckeyes and pursue an NFL career.
- Hilliard believes Day “brought the atmosphere of love and the atmosphere of brotherhood” to Ohio State even stronger than Urban Meyer.
- Werner praised Hilliard for everything that he’s overcome to get to this point where he’s playing the best football of his career. He says Hilliard is a close friend who welcomed him into the program and seeing his success is “unbelievable.”
- Werner says Najee Harris and Travis Etienne “compare pretty close.” He says Harris is a more physical back, but “as long as we do the same things we did for Etienne we’ll do good stopping him.”
- The growth of Ohio State’s linebackers has been an important piece to the Buckeyes’ defense: “The coaches put a lot more on the linebackers’ table toward the end of the season because they know we’re capable.”
- Alabama has “a great plan to get (Harris) the ball.” It might look cloudy at times, but then you see him get seven or eight yards when he should have gotten zero. Calls Harris “a great threat.”
- Emil Ekiyor Jr., Alabama’s starting right guard, is a former teammate of Werner’s at Cathedral (Indiana) High School. He says the two have spoken already about their upcoming matchup and “we’re ready to get after each other.”
- “It’s not anything different” going against Alabama’s offensive line. Werner says Ohio State’s defense likes to compare the Buckeyes’ own offensive line to the Crimson Tide’s and that going up against their teammates in practice will help prepare them for the challenge.
- Despite it being “a weird year,” Williamson believes the Buckeyes’ secondary has evolved throughout the season.
- Williamson calls Sevyn Banks “an amazing athlete” and that Banks has reached a new comfort level with his body and his technique: “Sevyn can make some plays and help us bring a ring home.”
- On preparing for Alabama’s receivers: “It’s extensive preparing for these guys. Of course DeVonta just won the Heisman, and all around they’re great players. … Being able to get on the film and prepare for what we think they’re gonna do has been fun as well.”
- Williamson says he plans on returning next season, taking advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility rule implemented for this year: “I’m still enjoying being a Buckeye, man. This year has been crazy. I know we’ve had a shortened season and we’ve lost games, … but I’m just excited to get our unit back to the standards we hold ourselves to. … I’m not ready to leave yet. We still have unfinished business.”
- He says that this secondary is “relishing” the opportunity to go up against Alabama and prove itself against the Tide’s explosive receivers.
- Williamson calls Ransom’s growth and performance this season “remarkable.”