Tough Tasks Ahead for Ohio State's Position Coaches

By Michael Citro on August 5, 2013 at 11:30a
Vrabel has a big job ahead.

Ohio State football players are back in camp and preparing for world domination. Each one of those players is a plowshare that some position coach is trying to beat into a sharp and angry sword.

Buckeye position coaches have a lot to do with whether or not Urban Meyer has a successful season as head coach, and with the triumphs and failures of Ohio State as a team — over the course of the season, within individual games, and even from play to play.

When certain position groups suffer more attrition than others it puts pressure on the respective coach to bring younger players together quickly so as to avoid creating a weak link in the Buckeye chain.

The 2013 Ohio State team isn’t unique in having to emphasize different position groups from year to year.  Last season, for example, the Buckeyes had to revamp the offensive line. Ed Warriner was a boss in turning his five guys — including a converted tight end — into one of the country’s best by the end of the year.

Today we’ll look at five position coaches who will be under the most pressure to quickly develop cohesion in their group.

Mike Vrabel – Defensive Line

There is no bigger question mark on the 2013 Buckeyes than defensive line. Ohio State’s line was an area of strength a year ago and all four starters are gone, a situation that became final when Johnathan Hankins declared for the NFL Draft.

Mike Vrabel has a very talented but young group that he’ll need to mold into a solid fighting force quickly if Ohio State is going to avoid the upset bug in a preseason schedule that includes deceptively problematic opponents such as San Diego State and California.

Guys like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington provided depth to a veteran line a year ago as freshmen. Now they’ll be asked to carry the load left behind by guys like Hankins, John Simon and Nathan Williams. Joel Hale, Michael Bennett and Tommy Schutt will also have to step up. Vrabel has to make sure his group is ready or it could be a long season.

Luke Fickell – Linebackers

Like last year, linebacker is an area of concern. Most people are pretty comfortable with Ryan Shazier, but let’s not forget that he had issues overrunning plays early in 2012. Although he seemed to turn the corner, Shazier must continue to get better and avoid any relapse into bad habits. That’s on Luke Fickell.

With the loss of Zach Boren, the best Buckeye stopgap measure in recent memory, and Etienne Sabino — both to graduation — Fickell will have to develop additional linebackers to play alongside Shazier. The leading candidate is Curtis Grant, about whom we’ve heard great things. Whether Grant can perform to the necessary level in game conditions remains to be seen.

Josh Perry is an impressive physical specimen, but can he be trusted to provide quality snaps for the defense? Fellow sophomore Cam Williams and freshmen Trey Johnson and Mike Mitchell may also push for playing time. Fickell has to find the right combination for not only the 4-2-5 alignment, but also for times when playing 4-3 is necessary. It’ll be a difficult task.

Zach Smith – Wide Receivers

WHERE'S MY RED BULL, CUPCAKE?Coombs has to replace senior starters on two units.

Between 2012 and 2013 only the offensive line showed more improvement than the wide receivers group. However, that doesn’t mean they played up to the level that Urban Meyer or Tom Herman wanted. Philly Brown caught a lot of passes and Devin Smith made some big plays, but there were far too many occasions where Buckeye pass catchers failed to get open.

Zach Smith has the luxury of getting his weapons from 2012 back for another year. Brown, Smith and an improving Chris Fields bring a lot of experience to the wide receiver position. Smith will try to develop them into a more reliable set of weapons for Braxton Miller.

Smith also has depth this season with junior Evan Spencer, sophomore Michael Thomas, JuCo transfer Corey Smith and some talented incoming freshmen. With greater competition, Zach Smith can push his starters to become better. For the OSU offense to operate at full strength, this must happen or else the younger guys must seize the starting spots.

Kerry Coombs – Cornerbacks/Special Teams

In between chugging Red Bulls, Kerry Coombs has to replace departing senior starters Travis Howard (cornerback) and Ben Buchanan (punter). In addition to finding a player — most  likely Doran Grant — to take over as magistrate of Howard Island, Coombs will have to plug someone into Bradley Roby’s spot for as long as his suspension lasts.

Will it be junior Adam Griffin or talented youngsters like Armani Reeves, Eli Apple and Gareon Conley? It’s important for Coombs to find the right combination, because even when Roby returns, there is always the risk of injury.

As the newly appointed czar of special teams, Coombs will also have to replace the punter with the eighth best average in school history. Australian freshman Cameron Johnston and senior placekicker Drew Basil are the favorites to replace Buchanan. Can either make a big boot under pressure? That’s what Coombs has to find out. I would imagine there will be yelling involved.

Ed Warriner – Offensive Line

While 4/5 of Ohio State’s offensive line remains intact, it’s a group that is only as strong as its weakest link. Any offensive lineman missing an assignment or getting beat can blow up an offensive play, often with disastrous results. The pressure will be on Ed Warriner to fill the hole at right tackle vacated by Reid Fragel.

This would seem to be Taylor Decker’s job to lose, but he hadn’t clearly won the spot out of spring camp. Spring of 2012 also didn’t provide a right tackle starter but Warriner quickly turned Fragel Rock into a borderline all-conference player who showed well enough to be selected in the NFL Draft.

The other position coaches will have their work to do as well. Herman will need to continue Miller’s development and keep his backup quarterbacks prepared. He’ll also have to watch for Miller reverting to bad habits in his mechanics. Stan Drayton will have to eliminate Rod Smith’s fumbling problems and get his running backs ready to withstand the absence of Carlos Hyde during his suspension. Everett Withers must continue developing C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant, as well as their backups. Finally, Tim Hinton must ensure Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett continue increasing their contributions to the offense and he needs to develop younger players like Marcus Baugh and Blake Thomas.


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Hovenaut's picture

Not at all surprised to see the d-line and linebackers head up the list.

Looking at the units in this light, with emphasis on the coaches, it's unique and advantageous for the players to have coaches in Vrabel and Fickell. Who played for the program, were teammates, were successful and offer a wealth of experience.

Pivotal year for the program, plenty to feel good about. Love the talent and potential in both the players and the coaching staff.

avail31678's picture

Great write-up.  I know last year people were calling for Fickel's head on a platter (I wasn't one of them)...but I think we may find out just what he's made of this year with the LB situation.  It's not ALL on him - the young talent has to have a quick learning curve as well, but I'm really hoping Fick steps up and surpasses expectations. 
Ditto for Curtis Grant.  Dude is such a beast and I really hope he's playing great this year. 
It's agony waiting for August 31...but GREAT JOB 11W as posting camp updates and articles seemingly every hour!!!  It helps!!

Silverbuck8's picture

While there has been a lot of talent at LB, the development hasn't always been there.  Take Shazier out of the equation we really need to see if C.Grant has finally lived up to his potential and can Mitchell, Johnson contribute if an injury were to occur.

Northbrook's picture

Add in the asthma issue for Perry and LB is my biggest concern area. Also noticed while watching recent replays on BTN that teams like to run at Shazier. He is quite a talent but he needs to be a bit more stout against the run and he needs better inside LB help.

RunEddieRun1983's picture

Honestly why isn't Cam Burrows being discussed for playing time?  This kid is a machine.  I bet by tonight we start hearing seriously big time news about him.

I don't always downvote, but I do always downvote a Michigan fan trolling the Buckeye boards.

Buckeye06's picture

Luke Fickell has proven he can develop linebackers since he developed 2 of the best OSU has ever had and is developing Shazier too

1967Buck's picture

Very Nice write up. These updates are keeping me grounded.....well sort of. Peace Go Bucks!!!

zjhousley's picture

Fickell will get the LBs where we need to be as far as starters go. I think the dangerous part with LBs is if we can't find some solid #2s incase of injury. Same thing with Vrabel and the DL. I think the top 4 will be beasts but it'd be nice to have 7-10 who can contribute and gives guys a breather when needed!!!

pasadena buckeye's picture

Replacing the defensive front 7 is a huge task. I think our lofty ranking can only be justified on where we are projected to finish since its tough to justify it out of the starting gate with so much inexperience. It will be on the offense to carry games and provide big leads until the D can get enough reps for coaches to evaluate player game performances, adjust starting personnel and develop an identity.

Pasadena Buckeye

Nutinpa's picture

Despite his enormous popularity as a coach and a recruiter, I see this as a pivotal year for Luke Fickell.  No I am not suggesting he will get shown the door if his LB corps is weak.  But he is suffering a bit of a credibility gap if you ask me.  After a disastrous year as an ineffective Head Coach, Luke was bailed out by a Zack Boren last year....a converted FB as we all know.  While the LB attrition at Ohio State has been well chronicled in the past 3 years, it was all under Luke's watch...and the end result was butt ugly.  LB went from one of OSU's core strengths to its weak link.  That should happen to Ohio U...not Ohio State, and no, you don't have to remind me of the perfect s**t storms that have impacted that group recently.  Still....there was no "next man up" from the younger dudes....just transfers out. If I am being too harsh in my criticism, then so be it.  But I would hate to be Luke if this is the 3rd year in a row of B or C to C minus grading of this group.

BuckeyeWags's picture

I agree. It was absolutely telling when Zach Boren could come in and perform better with 4 days of instruction and with more staff confidence then LBs who had been under Fickell's tutelage for months  and years. The attrition of Luke Roberts and David Perkins at this pivotal and thin positional group also raises questions. You know Luke Roberts had no mental issues in learning a position. I grant Fickell's recruiting acumen, but I question his positional LB coaching ability, and also his ability to coordinate a defense. I hope he proves me wrong.

-1 HS
faux_maestro's picture

Nobody was questioning Fickell when Hawk, Carpenter, Laurinitis, Brian Rolle, Ross Homan, Marcus Freeman ETC were here. I'm wondering,  when does coach Withers or coach Coombs get blamed for any of the defensive struggles? The DB's played like crap for long stretches last year too. 

Your mom told me she wants a Dicken Cidar.

Nutinpa's picture

Actually, Withers and Coombs were taking quite a bit of fan criticism when the D was scorched last year, especially up through the Indi game.  Our secondary was getting shredded and people kept saying...."well....they'll never see another passing QB like...xxxx again, so let's move on."   I read posts here and on another site that were critical of those guys, believe me. But they were handpicked by Meyer, so his criticism was muted.
As for the previous LBs you mention, yes, not sure if Luke did get full credit for them, but that is not the point.  Going from the quality of those guys to what was fielded in the past 2 seasons is quite a fall off.  It's also fair to lay some of the blame in 2011 on Vrabel as the disaster with the LBs that year was on his watch if I recall correctly.
I have no problem with yours or anyone's defense of Luke.  I just think that this is a year for his LB group to shine or its 3 sub par years in a row. Hell, Penn State didn't go through that...or at least hasn't so far, and they had a helluva lot more problems than OSU has had.

faux_maestro's picture

If Withers and Coombs were taking a lot of heat around here I must have missed those threads.

Your mom told me she wants a Dicken Cidar.

Mirror Lake Jump's picture

A few questionable angles taken on long runs. 

InHartWeTrust's picture

UV to offset the other DV, because I think you make some solid points.  Eager to see what he does with his guys this year.

wolfman's picture

I really like Luke, but I wonder how much we really miss Jim Heacock?  There was some information a few months back that he was possibly be some sort of consultant or something.  Is he back with the team in some capacity?  On a side note, I didn't realize he was a coach at Bowling Green while I attended there.
What has worried me the past two years is that our defense just doesn't feel the same.  I hope that is a temporary setback caused by ineffective linebacker play.  For years I have been excited about our defense and have always said that if we could just add some scoring, we would be impossible to stop.  I would never want to trade scoring for defense like other teams out there.  Could you imagine OSU football playing in 54-45 point games all the time?  Not that I see that happening under Urban.  It will probably be more like 54-3 once we get all these young players in the fold!

Michael Citro's picture

Heacock has officially rejoined the team as an advisor and will help with film study and such. I think his presence will really help Luke Fickell and the rest of the defensive staff.

MN Buckeye's picture

Very pleased to hear that Heacock is on staff!  I had been wondering about whether he was in, and he will be a great asset.

raki's picture

Not sold on luke fickel yet, Nothing personal great guy and upmost respect for him. But last year's defense was not upto the the mark what we have seen during the Tressel era. May be I am proved wrong this year in the first three games. But poor tackling was a huge issue last year.

InHartWeTrust's picture

Lets hope Heacock can bring help to bring him along, and our D will return to the type of D we are accustomed to.

CentralFloridaBuckeye's picture

Lots to sort out.  I think the D-Line is the most critical, but will be a huge asset by the end of the year.  The ends are strong, just got to sure up the DT spots.  I think they will.
Go Bucks!!

pjtobin's picture

Using last years team to judge this years team is hard for me to do. We all know last years team was Urbans first year here. There were many mistakes on both sides of the ball and special teams. And those mistakes I cannot or will not put the blame on a single coach. They were all just learning how to mesh. The first year is always the toughest to get through. I think the end result was pretty nice. 
I don't understand why anyone has doubts about Fickel. The mistakes our d was having were happening to the ENTIRE defense. His hands were tied when it came time for those kids to execute what he was teaching them. The old saying "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink" has never been more appropriately used than when referring to last years defense. Those young men wearing shoulder pads were the ones on the field making mistakes here and there. 
I say we make judgment about this years team during and after this season.  If certain coaches are not up to par I would think Urban would address them himself. If certain players are not with the program or up to speed I'm sure they will get a helping hand from all of our coaches. I'm confidant that our staff wants every player to be the best they can be. If a coach cannot get these young men to achieve their full potential I don't see Urban keeping them on. 

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad.