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Ohio State players demanding greater accountability, 'hungry' to start season and return to CFP

INDIANAPOLIS -- Despite an 11-2 record last season and a win in the Rose Bowl, Ohio State players were not satisfied with the outcome. A loss to Michigan and missing out on the College Football Playoff caused the players to take accountability into their own hands this offseason.

"I feel like we haven't really won anything, so we're hungry, we just want to get to Week 15," wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba said. "That's the main goal, to dominate every week and to prove something every week. It's something that we're thinking about every day in workouts and practice.

Quarterback C.J. Stroud said the grind of this offseason has been as hard as it has ever been since he joined Ohio State prior to the 2020 season. From the workouts to players leading by example and calling out other players, Stroud and Smith-Njigba said not only are players comfortable with the accountability, they're all willing to take the criticism.

"If you watched, [Georgia linebacker] Nakobe Dean had gotten on his teammate in the playoffs, and I don't think it was out of spite or hate. It's deeper than that," Stroud said. "We all want to go to the league and I want to push them to get there. It's more than just what you see with X's and O's, I think accountability has definitely been there and we push each other like crazy this season."

Part of that shift has been from the coaches after a season where Ohio State made changes among the defensive staff with a new coordinator, a loss to Michigan and missing out on the College Football Playoff. Head coach Ryan Day said he and his staff did an extensive study on leadership and how to structure the offseason so the players could take on a bigger role.

Day said they started the offseason explaining what leadership is, then devised a plan to have players sign up who wanted to take on a leadership role. The players then voted to pick 24 players who would step in as leaders and separated them into groups to manage.

"Throughout that seven-week period, leading up to spring ball, it was great, a lot of conflict," Day said. "If one of their guys was late, they all had accountability issues. It was interesting to see who had different votes and who was on who."

The coaches laid out what the criteria was, what the rules were and what the repercussions were. The players agreed to it and because they agreed to it, they knew it was up to them to enforce it.

Outside of the structured plan, Stroud has taken on a bigger leadership role as he matures and grows. Last season, Day said that Stroud was still trying to navigate the system and find his place within the program while experiencing a lot of firsts as the new starter.

Seeing Stroud emotional after the loss to Michigan and taking the loss personally, Day saw it as a growth moment for his quarterback and as a mature response to a difficult situation.

"I think an immature kid would say, 'I played pretty well, I can't stop the run, I can't run the ball and it was snowing,'" Day said. "If you watch just him in that game, he played pretty well. But I think he's got the right approach and I think he feels like he's not on his own."

Stroud has become more vocal and has challenged his teammates to be better this offseason. Part of that is the play on the field from Stroud last season, throwing for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns. Day believes that has developed trust from his teammates that has allowed for Stroud to take on a bigger role.

"When you build relationships with people, you're able to be more willing to accept being challenged and being held accountable," Day said. "If you have enough numbers, you have enough guys who are saying the same thing, it's not just you against me, you're going to do it. That's why the number of leaders we have, I think, matters because they agreed that this is something we needed."

At most programs, an 11-2 season with a Rose Bowl win would be enough. Not at Ohio State. Stroud said it was unacceptable and he knows the team needs to be better this season to accomplish its goals of beating Michigan, winning the Big Ten championship and winning a national championship.

"I don't think we've accomplished anything, to be honest with you. The personal goals are cool, but at the end of the day, I want to be a legend at the school," Stroud said. "I want to be one of the best quarterbacks to play here, and I don't think I'm even close. I definitely think last year was a learning curve and that's not good enough for our standards and we need to do better."