When Ohio State began spring practice in March 2017, few outside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center could pick Ryan Day out of a crowd.
Back then, Day was a fairly anonymous assistant, brought in from the San Francisco 49ers after the team fired Chip Kelly and most of his staff. There was much more buzz about new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who had been hired to spark a middling pass game. And the program still belonged to Urban Meyer, one of the most accomplished and imposing figures in the sport.
Two years later, the Ryan Day era is underway in Columbus. Day, who filled in for Meyer during his three-game suspension last season and officially took over following Ohio State's Rose Bowl win over Washington, will oversee his first spring practice session as Buckeyes head coach in the coming weeks. The first-time head coach turns 40 on March 12, days after the start of spring ball, and the learning curve will come at him fast.
He inherits one of college football's prized programs, one that has won consecutive Big Ten titles but last reached the CFP in 2016 and last won a national title in 2014. Day already has displayed his skill as a quarterback guru with Dwayne Haskins, but now he must create a smooth transition from the dominant Meyer era.
2018 record: 13-1
Spring practice start date: March 6
Spring game: April 13
Strength heading into spring: Ohio State's returning offensive skill will help quarterback Justin Fields, the Georgia transfer who received an NCAA waiver to play immediately for the Buckeyes. Although the offense loses three standout wide receivers -- Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon -- and second-leading rusher Mike Weber, there is plenty of production left. Fields has proven target K.J. Hill (144 career receptions) and other talented options such as Binjimen Victor and Chris Olave, who emerged late last season.
Running back J.K. Dobbins also returns after piling up 2,456 rush yards, 17 touchdowns and 48 receptions in his first two seasons. Tight ends Luke Farrell and Rashod Berry bring experience and should have enhanced roles.
While it's likely not realistic to expect Fields to replicate Haskins' production from 2018, the Buckeyes' offense shouldn't slow down much.
Question mark heading into the spring: Ohio State simply can't expect to return to the CFP without significant improvement on defense. Spring practice brings an interesting dynamic as the Buckeyes return nine starters on defense, but they have new co-coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley. Mattison left Michigan for Ohio State to become a coordinator again, while Hafley and Day go back to their time with the 49ers.
An equally important coaching addition is Al Washington, who returns to his hometown to oversee the linebackers after working with Mattison at Michigan. Ohio State's linebacker play slipped last season, and restoring the standard at the position will be paramount as starters Pete Werner, Tuf Borland and Malik Harrison all return.
The line should be the unit's strength, as All-America candidate Chase Young headlines the group. Ohio State's secondary returns intact after a breakdown-filled season in 2018. Hafley's work with talented defensive backs such as Damon Arnette will be interesting to watch.
Instant impact addition: After extensive deliberation, Fields is the pick here (shocking, we know). Tate Martell's departure increased the need for Fields to get his NCAA waiver approved. He will compete with Matthew Baldwin but is widely expected to be Ohio State's starter for the next few seasons. After choppy results in limited action with Georgia, Fields will look to settle in under Day, Wilson and new quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich, who coordinated Oklahoma State's offense the past six seasons.
Fields, the top-rated recruit in the 2018 class, is Ohio State's most decorated arrival since quarterback Terrelle Pryor in 2008. If Fields maintains the trajectory Haskins started last season, the Ohio State quarterback position will be viewed as a power position around the country.
Game to get excited about in 2019: Ohio State doesn't face a marquee Power 5 opponent outside the Big Ten, but Cincinnati should provide a good test in Week 2. The Bearcats won 11 games in 2018 and return a dynamic young quarterback, Desmond Ridder, as well as seven starters from a defense that ranked ninth nationally in efficiency.
Cincinnati won't lack motivation. Head coach Luke Fickell is a former Ohio State defensive lineman who spent 15 years on the Buckeyes staff, including the 2011 season as head coach. Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is a former All-Big Ten linebacker.
Ohio State has beaten up on in-state schools for decades, and Cincinnati last defeated the Buckeyes in 1897. But this Bearcats team shouldn't be overlooked.