Urban Meyer said it. Chris Ash said it. Ohio State’s newly hired co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach was in a good situation. He was working under a coach he’d developed a rapport with – Bret Bielema – his units were among the best in the conference or improving, and he had just entered a land of great opportunity – the mighty SEC.
So why did Ash toss aside Arkansas for the Buckeyes? Well, it wasn’t an easy decision. Like out-of-state recruits, attracting out-of-state coaches to Ohio State isn’t as easy as one might think. Sure, there’s the tradition, mystique and working with Meyer. But there are also real-life concerns, like uprooting your family and meshing with a new coaching staff.
Alas, Ash chose the Buckeyes, just like a recruit chooses scarlet and gray. And Ash’s presence next season could be more important than any personnel development during the months of January and February, enrollment of Raekwon McMillan included.
“In your career, you want to have an opportunity to win a national championship," Ash said. “I believe here at Ohio State that we have that opportunity.”
Ash’s track record bodes well for Ohio State, which fielded one of the nation’s worst pass defenses in the nation a year ago. Poor tackling and coverage was the downfall, contributing to the Buckeyes’ losses to Michigan State and Clemson. They allowed a combined 682 passing yards to the Spartans and Tigers, numbers that make horror movies seem tame.
Ohio State ranked 112th nationally against the pass and 47th in total defense. It allowed 268 yards passing per game and surrendered 31 touchdown passes, second-worst in the Big Ten.
A national championship or bust campaign quickly went kaboom.
“You're going to see some significant changes in the way we approach our business back there,” Meyer said. “I’m going to be more involved than I ever have been, just to make sure that we get up to standard at Ohio State on the defensive side of the ball with emphasis in pass defense.”
So in comes Ash, who built Wisconsin’s secondary into one the Big Ten’s best during three years in Madison. And he did so with unheralded recruits. A one-year stint at Arkansas yielded zero conference wins, but the secondary saw marked improvements from the previous season.
“He’s got a serious responsibility,” Meyer said. “That’s to improve our pass defense. He’ll be in charge of the entire back end of our defense. It’s his responsibility to improve our pass defense.”
Said Ash: “We understand we’ve got to create issues for an offense, and then when we get to third down, you’ve got to create confusion, and we’re going to do that.”
“In your career, you want to have an opportunity to win a national championship. I believe here at Ohio State that we have that opportunity.”– Chris Ash
Ash hails from Iowa and has coached in the Midwest for nearly his entire career. The move to Ohio State quickly became a no-brainer. He could associate himself with Meyer while building a championship caliber defense. His viewpoint closely aligns with what Meyer and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell envision.
“When [Meyer] talked about his vision for defense, that excited me because it matched my philosophy and what I want to be a part of,” Ash said. “Second thing is, you can’t deny the history and success Coach Meyer has had at every stop. As a coach, I want to find out why. Is there something there to make me better? The only way I’m going to find out is to work there.”
According to Meyer, Fickell will still hold veto power and have final say on game days. Ash has been a defensive play caller for several years and he, along with Fickell, defensive line coach Larry Johnson and even Meyer, will devise the game plan.
Any semblance of a strained or awkward working relationship between the coordinators was swiftly put to rest.
“If I didn’t think Luke and I could have a great relationship and great chemistry, I wouldn’t have come to Ohio State,” Ash said. “The players are going to feed off the coaches. Successful teams have one thing in common – great chemistry. A lot of that comes from the staff. Luke and I share the same passion and vision, and I think it will work.”
More help is on the way. Of Ohio State’s 23-man recruiting class, eight play in the back half of the defense. Among them are four blue-chippers that will patrol the secondary. Changing the mentality and developing confidence is first on a long list of housekeeping chores for Ash. The goal is to play with a more aggressive style.
“You play fast, you play with reckless abandon, you’re physical, you throw your body around,” Ash said. “There’s no hesitation, there’s no confusion. You know exactly what you’re doing. You can react to your key and there’s only one speed – it’s full speed. That’s the way we have to play.”
Doran Grant is the lone returning starter, signaling imminent changes. Spring practice will feature a wide-open competition that’s sure to play host to a competitive spirit. Ash and Coombs will collaborate on work with the cornerbacks. Both coaches stressed teamwork and operating together for the betterment of the defense.
“You’ve got to perform to play, and I think that the expectation on the part of every player on this football team is you have to show up every day and you’ve got to perform in order to play in the fall,” Coombs said. “We’re going to work really hard on finding those guys who can compete and who will challenge in tough situations.
“Chris 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. I think that’s very important.”
Whatever the terminology, Ash will have zero issues confronting what ails Ohio State. Football is a universal language.