New Buckeye defensive staff’s success could come down to matter of trust

So Ohio State finally confirmed the hiring of Chris Ash as safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator. Along with new defensive line coach and assistant head coach Larry Johnson, Ash completes Urban Meyer’s staff for 2014.

Now what?

After the two get off the road from recruiting, they will find a defense left in shambles at the end of last season, the last of three years of regression that followed a decade of stellar play.

Ohio State lines up against Indiana last November
Ohio State lines up against Indiana last November

Johnson has a reputation as an outstanding position coach, and he will find a group that performed well in a trial by fire this past season. The stout, fundamentally tough play he taught at Penn State could blend very nicely with the aggressive style outgoing coach Mike Vrabel instilled in the group.

Ash’s job figures to be much tougher, though he will have a nearly clean slate when he and holdover Kerry Coombs work to rebuild a secondary that gave up 268.0 yards per game last season, almost 25 more than a year earlier. 

As far as giving up points, this is the worst three-year span in Ohio State history. Yes, 2011-13 marks the first time the Buckeyes have ever posted three consecutive seasons of more than 20 points allowed per game (that’s in 124 years).

While the defensive line remained productive this past season, the back seven struggled all year.

That is where Ash comes in. Secondary coaching is his specialty, and all indications are he will try to push the Buckeyes toward a “quarters” or “Cover 4” defense that is becoming trendy as teams try to figure out a way to deal with the high-powered, versatile offenses of today’s college football.

While some are hoping that also means pressing receivers like Michigan State has become well-known for doing, that is not what Ash’s teams have done a lot in his previous stops.

That could be due to a lack of personnel, however, so it will be interesting to see what he does once he gets his hands on the players Meyer has been bringing to Columbus.

The man Ash is replacing, Everett Withers, also brought a quarters defense with him, but it had to be scrapped due to repeated breakdowns in communication during the 2012 season.

In theory, it is a wonderful attack. It’s the best of both worlds from a man and zone perspective. But that two-way go is dangerous because it can leave a team exposed not only if there is a physical breakdown but also if everyone in the backfield isn’t reading the same thing.

After what has transpired the past three years, the Buckeye are in need of a reboot as much – if not more – from a fundamental standpoint as they are a schematic one.

The general bend-but-don’t-break philosophy had worked for the previous decade before the staff was reshuffled in the wake of Tressel’s exit and Meyer’s arrival, but the repeated missed tackles and blown coverages were unique.

People love to focus on scheme when things go wrong, but I think it’s been a little bit of everything that has held Ohio State back since Jim Tressel’s exit prior to the 2011 season.

Truth be told, there is a faction of fans who even during the Tressel era were not entirely thrilled with the preponderance of zone coverages that were deployed by his various coordinators (regardless of their success), something that has remained the case since Tressel left.

It’s interesting because while defensive coordinator Luke Fickell was part of the first “Silver Bullet defense” at Ohio State in 1996, his time as a coach in Columbus has never featured that type of in-your-face press attack. Much of that is a sign of the times, though. It was a lot easier for those late 90s defenses to play bump-and-run coverages on the outside and attack the line of scrimmage with eight or even nine defenders before the spread movement took hold. In fact, the coming of the spread is probably a direct result of the success of that type of defense Fred Pagac Sr. ran back then.

Tressel was famously conservative, but he had a great sense of how to teach his players to earn his trust. Then he knew when to let them go. The ability to maintain that balancing act just might be a unique talent few coaches possess, and I don’t get the sense Fickell has grasped it yet.

The defenses under Tressel, learning to deal with the spread on the fly, were more predicated on giving players the individual freedom to make plays while the scheme remained sound. Keep it simple and let players play fast has been the mantra, and it has been evident that works better with some guys than others.

Putting aside the defensive line, where the mindset is different because of fewer responsibilities, the players who have thrived in the back seven at Ohio State in the past 10-plus years have all been instinctual, plug-and-go guys. I’m thinking of linebackers like Matt Wilhelm, A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, James Laurinaitis, Ross Homan, Brian Rolle, Ryan Shazier and even Zach Boren along with defensive backs such as Mike Doss, Will Allen, Donte Whitner, Malcolm Jenkins, Kurt Coleman, Jermale Hines and Bradley Roby.

Those were all guys (with the possible exceptions of Shazier and Roby) who could essentially freelance within the scheme. They could make plays without compromising the soundness of the defense.

It remains to be seen if there are guys like that on the roster, but they have become even more valuable in the age of the spread and hurry-up offenses. The leadership of guys like Laurinaitis and Boren and Coleman and Jenkins is important as coaches on the field, but so is stepping up and making a big TFL or interception in an age when yards are becoming cheap but points remain as important as ever.

Withers said on more than one occasion he wanted to be an aggressive defense, but he offered caveats about doing so that I think are valid related to both the opponent and his own personnel. Spread offenses have developed more weapons for dealing with blitzes and quarterbacks have gotten better at executing them. Add in the threat of a running quarterback, and conventional wisdom cited often by Withers says blitzing became an even bigger gamble.

But you know what? Pat Narduzzi at Michigan State has spit on this logic as his defense has matured over the years. He seems more willing to look at what could go wrong for the offense than the defense if he rolls the dice.

That has become more effective as the players have gotten better in East Lansing, but it bears the question of whether or not trusting the players is a result of effective play or effective play comes from trusting the players to come through more often than not.

That’s a question Ash, Johnson, Fickell and Coombs will have to answer this winter, spring and summer as they put together the 2014 Ohio State defense, one bullet at a time.

Leave a Reply