National Signing Day Notebook: Overhauling the Secondary

By Mike Young on February 6, 2014 at 4:15p

Even the most casual observer can note Ohio State's defense – particularly in pass coverage – was the issue in a failed run at last season's national title.

Amidst all the "fire Luke Fickell" talk, head coach Urban Meyer stuck by his embattled assistant coach. Still, significant changes were inevitable. Co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers departed to take the head coaching job at James Madison and defensive line coach Mike Vrabel left to become the Houston Texans' linebackers coach. 

Meyer decided to go outside of the program to fill those vacant positions, bringing in long-time Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson and Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash. The latter will take on the larger and more challenging task of bringing the Buckeyes defense back to prominence, starting with the secondary. Ash will share that responsibility with Fickell, as they attempt to quickly rebuild and develop talent. 

defining ash and fickell's roles on defense

It took over a week for Ohio State to officially announce his hiring, but during that time, fans and media alike tried to dig up info on Ash's new position with the team. 

At one point, Ash's Twitter bio included the title "defensive coordinator." He later changed it to reflect his confirmed role as co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. However, that is ambiguous when it comes to interpreting what his actual responsibilities are. 

During Wednesday's press conference, Meyer attempted to relay what Ash's role on the team would be, although that is still being worked out. He established Fickell will have final say on defense, for now, but hinted at a more collaborative effort at other times, comparing it how they call offensive plays.  

"On offense, some people would say you need one coordinator. There's certainly one way to go about it. Who has the ultimate say on offense? If someone said 'Tom Herman,' I might raise my hand and say 'I'm not quite sure that's correct at certain times,'" Meyer said. "So, Luke Fickell's the defensive coordinator, co-coordinator when there's third down or some type of pass. I want a real strong back end presence and that's what we've got."

Essentially, during situations such as obvious passing downs, Ash will have a greater influence on the defensive play call. That might lead to some confusion on Saturdays, but the staff insists that should not be the case. 

"When you get to game day, honestly, most of the people on the defensive staff should be able to make the calls," Ash said. "If the defensive staff is aligned the right way, you're preparing the right way and everyone has ownership of what you're doing, then calling it on game day is not that difficult. Everything we do is going to be a team effort."

Ash to Fickell, Dust to Dust Ash will have some say over defensive play calls.

That "team effort" includes coaching and developing players in practice. Although Ash is replacing Withers, he takes on a larger responsibility than the departed assistant coach. Withers was the safeties coach, while Ash is tasked with leading the entire secondary unit.

Ash's job description means there will be some overlap with current cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs. By bringing in Ash to oversee the entire secondary, Ohio State is hoping ease the communication between position groups.

Coombs maintains that wasn't a problem last year, but he is looking forward to working with Ash in more of a cohesive, group setting.

"One of the things that Coach Meyer and I talked about, almost immediately after the season, was installation of pass coverage, concepts and communication, having one voice," Coombs said. "What I would tell you is that Chris [Ash] and I are going to function as a team in the back end. We will have one voice. We both may be saying it but we'll be saying the same thing so that when we meet together, when we coach together, when we're practicing together, we're all using the same terms"

Competition at the back end

With the departures of Bradley Roby to the NFL and Christian Bryant to a forced, early retirement, the Buckeyes are lacking meaningful experience in what was already an underachieving secondary. 

Senior Doran Grant will return at one of the starting corner spots, while redshirt sophomore Tyvis Powell will likely continue to see significant snaps somewhere in the secondary.  

According to Coombs, sophomore Cam Burrows will be playing some nickel corner and safety but nothing is assured. Even incoming freshmen, such as safety Malik Hooker, corner Marshon Lattimore, safety Erick Smith and corner Damon Webb are expected to play. 

"The competition, I would tell you, is wide open. You've got to perform to play," Coombs said. "I think that the expectation on the part of every player on this football team is you got to show up every day and you've got to perform in order to play in the fall."

That theory might seem like typical "coach speak," but, under the eyes of a new co-coordinator and secondary coach, it will truly be tested. Ash will use last year as a guide for determining how to handle the defense going forward. With the way they performed, it seems as though anyone has a chance to grab playing time.

"I did my research and noticed the stats weren't great. They were still winning but they weren't a dominating defense," Ash said. "They just felt like if they had a little better pass defense they might've had a chance to be in the national championship game. Why that is, yet, I'm still in that discovery mode, trying to go back through, watch film, talk to players and find out what were the true issues."

If he successfully implements his system, Ohio State will have a much more aggressive approach in the secondary. Both Ash and Coombs – with more input from Meyer – hope this year's team can restore the "silver bullets" moniker.

"We are going to change our style of play," Coombs said. "We're bringing in a couple of guys who have done things differently and so that brings in knowledge to our room defensively ... I would think you would see a more aggressive style of play across the board, from alignment to attack and so forth." 


Comments Show All Comments

German Buckeye's picture

If they play like Seattle's secondary, all in. 

+4 HS
clogan1032's picture

I would hope so, just the number one defense in the NFL. I'll settle for anything remote improved from the last few years. 

+1 HS
Chise47's picture

31 secondary's in the NFL couldn't play like Seattle's !! Let's just look for improvement.

+4 HS
bucknasty13's picture

Great point.  Seattle was also the most penalized defense in the NFL last season, FWIW.

jkrk's picture

Sure, but I can think of at least nine SEC secondaries that were better than Seattle's.

+3 HS
AndyVance's picture

Did anyone else watching that stinker of a Super Bowl think that watching the Seahawks D felt an awful lot like watching the Spartans D in the B1G title fight?

+6 HS
windycitybuck's picture

No. You can't be serious. 

spqr2008's picture

I was actually having flashbacks to the 2007 NC game.  Percy Harvin tearing up a decent and highly rated D, and a defense stifling one of the best offenses that year.  I had to turn it off about halfway into the 2nd quarter.

+4 HS
acBuckeye's picture

With one big exception...... Sparty couldn't stop El Guapo. Feed the beast, and we were in Pasadena as B1G Champs.

+4 HS
AndyVance's picture

Good point. We did that whole "shoot ourselves in the foot" thing too many times re: not unleashing the kraken.

+2 HS
Crimson's picture

That or, you know, the national championship game.

aplumb100's picture

I'm glad Urban shook things up on the defensive side of the ball. I would be surprised If Eli Apple wasn't starting across the field from Doran Grant. Throw in Gareon Conley and Damon Webb and we have a formidable cornerback presence this upcoming year. Guys like Lattimore will push for playing time too, making everyone better. 


+3 HS
steveoz49's picture

The competition will only make the team better.  It's going to be exciting to see who steps up and who doesn't meet the challenge.
Time to separate the men from the boys

Hovenaut's picture

I didn't see the words "soft" and "zone" used here, I'm already pleased with the progress.

+8 HS
sir rickithda3rd's picture

i think that's part of the recruiting philosophy as well. The defensive backfield is big long athletic guys.

mark may wins douchebag of the year... again

+1 HS
d5k's picture

Ash's quote is very illustrative.  Play calling is less about game day and more about game planning before game day.  If everyone knows the game plan and is aligned, anyone can call the plays.  Basically they have an idea of how to attack 1st and 10, 3rd and 5 etc. vs. what that team likes to do.  Calling the play is way easier than coming up with the comprehensive strategy.

+3 HS
Mortc15's picture

I think you can add to this the 'player-coach' lingo. When things are taken care of during the week prior instead of on game day, it makes it alot easier for the defensive on-field playcaller to know what's coming and in today's game of spread, no-huddle offenses, that's a big advantage.
Hopefully all this 'talking' translates to reality come next fall.


buckskin's picture

I am excited about a defensive back coach who will focus on the fundamentals; tackling, reading your keys, being in the right spot, not mostly yelling and screaming.  Coombs OSU intensity is legendary, but that doesn't make one a great teacher of the game.  I have a feeling that this coach will make a huge difference in our secondary; not only in recognizing talent and getting it on the field; but in developing that talent to it's fullest potential. 

+3 HS
BlazeTheBuckeye's picture

Ash will call the defense the staff just doesn't want to embarrass fick and I can understand that.

Hardly home but always reppin

+3 HS
Jdadams01's picture

I'm in this camp. Ash didn't come here to not call the D.

+2 HS
Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture



Read my entire screen name....

jkrk's picture

I'm not sure about this. I think Ash came here because he wants to be a head coach and working under Urbz is a better way to do that than working under Bert. That said, I also wouldn't be surprised if he does get that responsibility sometime in the near future.

NorthFLBuckeye's picture

I agree.  Ash has the experience to call the plays, and the all around defensive mindset instead of Fick who is Defensively mindLESS when it comes to coverages, and scheming.  He should've went to FAU.

BeijingBucks's picture

The Seattle secondary were very physical. I doubt the refs would let college corners grab as much. But having big guys who could disrupt and jump routes and most importantly... TACKLE when in open space. Winner winner chicken dinner. 
want to get back to that mike doss type back end intimidation

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

PittBuckeye's picture

Silver bullets are on the way, I can smell it.

+1 HS
Art Harrell's picture

Question, who will make the final decision what players will be on the field ?

Bamabucknut's picture

I hope NOT the same person who made the decision about who played last year.

allinosu's picture

Most of that is predetermine in coaches meeting according to what offensive packages are on the field bit I would think the position coaches decide the rotation of players.

ScarletBucki's picture

I just hope tyvis Powell a former 2 star and Armani reeves aren't on the field as much. Who's bright idea was it to play Powell over vonn bell the whole year. They didn't have a clue, I just hope they play the best players . We obviously haven't seen that on either side of the ball the past two seasons. 

-3 HS
BuckeyeStrong2's picture

"Whose bright idea was it to play Pitt Brown over Vonn Bell the whole year."


Fixed that for you.


+9 HS
sivaDavis's picture

I don't know whose bright idea it was but if you find them, let me know so I can thank them for being instrumental in winning the Michigan game. Without Tyvis, that possibly was a loss coming from TTUN... I hate saying that. Also, Tyvis should be starting this upcoming season, whether that be at Safety or Star. He has worked his ass off to be in this position and I couldn't be more happy for him. I've been relentlessly been trying to find a #23 Ohio State football jersey and after following his recruitment and his overall story, he'll go down as one of my favorite Buckeyes ever. Anyway, I'm hoping the secondary is set up like this but I know it won't be.

BC - Gareon Conley/Doran Grant/Armani Reeves

FC - Eli Apple/Damon Webb/Marshon Lattimore

FS - Vonn Bell/Erick Smith

SS - Tyvis Powell/Devan Bogard

Star - Cam Burrows/Chris Worley/Jayme Thompson


P.S.  Tyvis was a 3 star ;)



"I've had smarter people around me all my life, but I haven't run into one yet that can outwork me. And if they can't outwork you, then smarts aren't going to do them much good." - Woody Hayes

+1 HS
biggy84's picture

I wonder if Coach Heacock will still serve in an advisory role?

allinosu's picture

Urban said fick has final say so why more behind the scene gossip?

+2 HS
Getcha Gallof's picture

It sounds like Urban is trying to instill a little more faith in Luke Fickell from fans by saying he will have the ultimate say of the D, but I think Chris Ash will have more of an influence in all aspects of coaching.  He didn't leave Arkansas to take a back seat.

Once ate an entire bowling ball

Alpo's picture

I agree with you about installing more faith in Luke, however it's also saying this is on you. It's put up or shut up time." if Luke can't get the d up to muster this season, I think he'll be shown the door.

BlazeTheBuckeye's picture

Don't know why I received a down vote it's just my opinion urban is Mr straight forward and he danced around the question... Just an opinion I think this will be Ash's defense .

Hardly home but always reppin

JDunc686's picture

Yeah, I don't think you deserved a downvote for that, maybe you have a troll.  If thats the case...

CentralFloridaBuckeye's picture

Great write up Mike.  I sure hope that the seconday can improve by leaps and bounds this coming year!  We sure need it!  I think we got some great players that will help make that come true.
Go Bucks!!

Buckeye419er's picture

I think it was less about Fickell being a bad play caller and more about the coaching being cohesive and having continuity throughout the defensive unit. It's like no one was on the same page including the players themselves. You can't tell me that the players that were on that team weren't athletic enough to do the job. 

You can't exactly have leadership on the field when there isn't any direction off the field. That's what I feel like we were witnessing last year. A broken defensive mentality and therefor a weak defensive unit that was constantly trying to do too much at each position instead as a whole. That often left people out of position in the secondary and over pursuing in places they shouldn't have had to. 
I think this season will be more about being more cohesive.

There can be only one

+2 HS
BammBammRiley's picture

"...and so forth." 

BammBamm is my dog, Riley is my 4 yr old daughter, and THE Ohio state Buckeyes complete the three most sacred loves I cherish

+1 HS
jaxbuckeye's picture

Couple thoughts.  First, I guess Urban being loyal to Fickell is a good thing, but it can also be your doom.  Ultimately everyone is accountable.  Also, a bit nervous about Ash.  Hoping having better athletes will allow him to get aggressive but most of the Arkansas fans were saying good riddance.  Said he would play soft coverage on 3rd and short.  We shall see.  Really looking forward to next year but will be REALLY exciting when everyone on the team is a Meyer recruit.  Finally, hope we smash Mich St, because they've become the new Wisconsin.  Fans are REALLY annoying.

Doc's picture

I didn't read all of the comments, but has anyone even picked up on the "and so forth" at the end of the article?  The spirit of Tress still lives in the WHAC.

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

+1 HS
Buckeye_in_SEC_country's picture

Does anyone know if they ever meet as a whole defense and discuss strategy? I know they meet in position groups, but do they ever meet as whole group and watch film? Maybe talk about terminology and scheme from the line all the way to safety? 

Jordan Wagner's picture

They do meet as a defensive unit. It's something they want to do more of. Coach Coombs spoke about the importance of the whole secondary meeting together now instead of the usual CBs and S's separate. 

Qujo's picture

Urb didn't fire Fickell and if he wanted to he could. At some point the folks that have boners to fire Fickell just need to find another hate outlet. I like Ash but love Johnson... We upgraded the D coaching and recruiting opportunities, especially in the east. In the end it was the secondary continually letting the D down and the O running too many 3 and outs. Depends on what the final D coordinator lineup will be, my hope is Ash can help the secondary be real. Otherwise the boneheads will once again have their panties wedged in their arses to oust The wrong guy yet again. I kinda feel sorry for those dudes, ok no I don't, I kinda enjoy watching their meltdowns on these boards...

Our arch rivals.... 11 National Championships, 10 before 1949 - eight of eleven shared. Trying to respect them... trying.... Ugh!

+3 HS
m5987usus's picture

Pumped to see ash at work


pabdublin78's picture

It all sounds great.  Looking forward to the first look at the defensive alignment and seeing our corners up on the wideouts.  When our defense dominated, it was an aggressive front 4 that could pressure the QB without having to blitz all the time.  We have the athletes to do this now - we just need the philosophy and willingness by the defensive coaching staff to turn our guys loose.  It may mean giving up a touchdown play on a rare occasion, but that type of pressure throughout a game will bring turnovers, and flip field position. 

alust2013's picture

I think overall the coaching is an upgrade. As excited as I am about the Johnson hire, I wasn't really all that concerned about the D-Line. They were very good under Vrabel, and I see that continuing, especially with some serious depth. I like Ash too, he put together some very good defenses at Wisconsin without the load of 4- and 5-stars on the roster.

...and Michigan still sucks.

holtzy's picture

The more I hear from Coach Ash, the more I like him.

+1 HS
Xenia_Buckeye's picture

To play the Devil's Advocate here:

What happens if we are say halfway through the season and our secondary is still soft and squishy? Who exactly will be on the proverbial "hot seat"? Some of us have had a hard-on to get rid of Fickel - would this be his death knell? Would Coombs be gone as well?

The problem with the concept of co-this and co-that is that there really doesnt seem to be any dicernable difference, at least from the fans or my perspective, of who has ultimate authority.

After the last couple of years of crappy secondary play, I'd REALLY like to know who I should be mad at....

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

Well, when we see poor tackling angles and players clearly out of position like we have over the past few years, I'd say a good place to start is the players.

Read my entire screen name....

+1 HS
jkrk's picture

I think Coombs is secure no matter what. Special teams were outstanding last year.

bucki5's picture

For those of you that hate Luke, remember he's been on this staff a LONG LONG time and we've had some outstanding defenses with him coaching.  He knows what it takes to be successful, and hopefully has learned some lessons about life these last few years.  The talent is there, there's new blood in the coaches meetings.  I'm surprisingly optimistic that we will have a soul crushing defense next year.

+2 HS
buckeyeradar's picture

Hey guys and gals I've been on the sidelines for 2 years and This is my first comment so please be kind.  I know we have a lot of great talent coming in and already in the fold, with this kind of depth I would love to see us using as many as we can.  Throw in a new db or safety, change lb's in and out.  After the first four games the coaches will know what they got and who can do what.  These players all have talent, let them showcase it.  

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box but I'm one of the most colorful.

+2 HS
NitroBuck's picture

Welcome to the forum, and I'm proud to give you your first up-vote.

Ferio.  Tego.

NitroBuck's picture

There were clearly lots of communications breakdowns within the secondary and between the secondary and LB corps last season.  Call it a lack of coordination, which more than likely went back to issues between Fickell, Withers and Coombs.  Look, I don't want to cast blame on anyone involved.  I am just happy that changes have been made, which should result in a far more cohesive pass defense. One thing that really impresses me about Coaches Ash and Johnson is that they strike me as excellent teachers. This bodes well for player development, which is of key importance given the overall youth on the defensive side of the ball.  The future looks bright...Go Bucks!

Ferio.  Tego.

buckeyeradar's picture

I think if the coaches show trust in their players they will perform.  Keep it simple and aggressive.  Tackle through the body head up and finish the play.  Then go back to the huttle without the trash talking like you you've been there before.  That creates fear and respect.

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box but I'm one of the most colorful.

+1 HS