Film Study: What Chris Ash brings to Columbus

By Kyle Jones on March 20, 2014 at 10:00a

We're thrilled to welcome Kyle Jones to the staff where he'll join Ross Fulton in Eleven Warriors' Pigskin Scheme, Philosophy and Analytics department. He's here to help make us smarter.

You can find Kyle on Twitter as @Jones. Also, we're at peak Kyle.

Much has been said for the past month about the hiring of Ohio State’s new Co-Defensive Coordinator, Chris Ash. The former leader of the Universities of Arkansas and Wisconsin defenses has been looked upon as the answer to many Buckeye fans’ prayers, bringing an aggressive, yet disciplined philosophy to a unit that ultimately became the Achilles heel in a failed bid for a National Championship.

While many fans may be expecting Ash to lead a unit that will stop the run, play stifling man-to-man pass defense, and pressure the quarterback on every play (which may one day be so), the reality is that Ash’s philosophies are not too different from what OSU has put on the field in the past.

Formations and Base Personnel

Like 95% of FBS coaches, and as OSU has run for decades, Ash prefers a base 4-3 defense. Luckily OSU has the personnel in place to immediately run his schemes, without having to re-invent the wheel.

The biggest difference between Ash’s defenses and those of Luke Fickell (and previously, Jim Heacock), are how his squads align to the ‘strength’ of the opponent’s formation.

As seen below, Ohio State has consistently aligned their defense in a field/boundary setup, meaning the better players on OSU’s defense (such as Bradley Roby and Ryan Shazier) lined up to the side of the field closest to the sideline:

OSU Base Defense 2013

At Wisconsin and Arkansas, Ash aligned his teams to the side of the formation where the opponent has more players (such as a tight end or slot receiver), giving an advantage in the run game:

Arkansas 2013 Base Defense

Defensive Line

Ash likes to align his Defensive Tackles as simply Right and Left, trading responsibilities depending on the situation. However, the alignment of his Defensive Ends is determined by the Tight End, as he will have one DE that ALWAYS lines up over the opposing Tight End (called an “END” in his defenses), and one that is always uncovered (called a RUSH), lined up outside the tackle.

The “End” position was manned at Wisconsin by Ash’s most prized pupil, JJ Watt, so the likely predecessor in Columbus will be Joey Bosa, who possesses a similar (although very un-refined in comparison) skill set and build to Watt. The responsibilities of the ‘Rush’ end are very similar to the “Leo” position that OSU has had in the past, and is currently manned by Noah Spence. Spence should benefit though, from never having to line up over an opposing tight end, where he would struggle and disappear at times last season. Once he is back from his 2-game suspension, he should be able to use his athleticism to track run down plays from behind, as well as only deal with a tackle and potentially a running back in pass rush situations, instead of being doubled by a tackle and tight end.


Ash likes to run the 4-3 Under alignment that is shown in the OSU example above, which brings the Strong-side Linebacker (SLB or SAM) up over the Tight End, effectively giving the defense 5 men on the line of scrimmage. But as the screen caps above show, he will also run a traditional 4-3 “stack” alignment, where all 3 Linebackers line up off the line of scrimmage, behind the 4 defensive linemen (as seen in the Arkansas example).

Josh Perry is the odds-on favorite to start at the SLB position, as he has in the past for the Buckeyes. Ash likes to have an athletic linebacker with long arms at that spot, which is perfect for Perry. 

Much has been said about the ongoing battle between Senior, Curtis Grant, and the incoming Freshman, Raekwon McMillan, for the Middle Linebacker spot. Both bring size and athleticism to the position, however, of the 3 LB spots, the MLB doesn't have to be an all-world athlete in Ash's system, as they aren't often required to cover backs 1 on 1 in pass coverage.

The biggest change for OSU linebackers will be in the "stack" alignment, as the Weak-side Linebacker (WLB or WILL) will actually line up on the ‘strong’ side of the formation. The reason being that he is covered up by 2 defensive linemen in front of him, and should be free to roam around and make a play without worrying about opposing offensive linemen.

The WLB spot has been manned by Ryan Shazier for the past 3 seasons in Columbus, and his shoes won't be easy to fill. This position requires the most athleticism of the 3 LB spots, and is often relied upon to cover the most ground and make tackles as the other members of the front 7 are often occupying opposing blockers. This is a key position to watch throughout Spring practice, as Ash, Fickell, and the rest of the OSU defense will be relying on this spot to produce come the fall.

Defensive Backs

Much like the Defensive Tackles, Ash lines up his Cornerbacks as Right & Left, not aligning them to a particular strength. In passing situations, Ash removes the Strong-side Linebacker in favor of a 3rd Cornerback (or Nickelback), but isn’t as quick to make that move (especially on 1st and 2nd down) as Luke Fickell has been in the past. Against spread offenses, expect to see Ohio State line up with the 3rd Cornerback quite a bit though.

The biggest change for OSU will be at the safety spot, where Ash prefers to have 2 safeties on the field with similar skill sets, allowing them to interchange responsibilities, depending on what the opponent is showing. They will align to the strength of the opponent's formation though, unlike the corners.

Additionally, Safeties in Ash's system are the Quarterbacks of the defense. Due to their deep alignment and the ever-growing popularity of spread offenses, the Safeties usually have the best vantage point for setting the defensive formation and making adjustments at the line. This will certainly be worth watching during the Spring Game, as a group of underclassmen such as Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, will all be looking to stand out and gain playing time this fall. The players that are able to best adjust to commanding the defense from a mental and vocal standpoint will have a leg up on their competition heading into the fall.

The main takeaway for fans here though, is not to expect a whole lot to look different when it comes to OSU’s alignment on defense. The biggest differences between Ash and Fickell are fairly small items, and it may well be easier to keep the current personnel aligning as they have in the past, without adding one more thing to learn.


In his DVD, 'Aggressive 4-3 Defense: Setting Up The System', Ash describes many of his core tenets, using words such as “Hustle” and “Desire,” but also focusing on minimizing big plays, creating takeaways, and putting a priority on stopping the run.

This all sounds like the philosophies of any defensive minded football coach (I am yet to hear a defensive coach announce that his team will be "passive"), but one of the first items that gives Ash his identity was his focus not just on stopping the run, but HOW his teams will stop the run.

While many teams regularly align with one safety closer to the line of scrimmage, effectively acting like a 4th linebacker, Ash prefers to line up both safeties deep before the snap, with one of the Defensive Backs being responsible to come up to the line and support the run defense while the others maintain deep coverage of the wide receivers.

Which defensive back is responsible is entirely dependent on the play-call, and can change on every play. This is part of a larger desire to run multiple schemes out of a limited number of formations and alignments, in an attempt to simplify things for his players. 

As you can see below in a clip from his Arkansas defense last year, both safeties appear in a 2-deep look before the snap:

Arkansas 8th box defender

But at the first hint of run, the Free Safety (circled) crashes down, as he was called on to be the 8th defender in the box (he ended up making the tackle on this play). 

In certain games this year, Arkansas showed a quarter-quarter-half defense, bringing the CB closest to the sideline (or, boundary CB) into the box as the 8th defender. If this kind of strategy sounds familiar, it should, as Ohio State used this scheme with Bradley Roby playing the role of the 8th man (yellow circle), as a staple of the defense over the past 2 years:

OSU & Arkansas Q-Q-H alignments

Knowing OSU is committing 8 men to the run on every play does allow the defense to be more exposed to the deep, play-action pass, however. For over a decade, the OSU defense has been predicated upon not allowing opposing offenses to hit the ‘home run’, and instead make opponents beat them by executing long drives of short yardage plays.

However, as Sammy Watkins and the Clemson offense showed, if you give an offense easy plays to execute (such as screens and short crossing routes), they will beat you if their athletes are superior to yours (and Sammy Watkins is a better athlete than anyone on OSU’s roster). So, prepare for an occasional deep ball over the head of an OSU safety as he is watching an opposing running back in the backfield. Just try to remember all the tackles that safety made in the box previous to that play, before you roast him on Twitter.

While this may sound fairly fundamental, Ohio State’s defense is in major need of core philosophies. 2013 saw the Buckeyes’ formations, schemes, personnel, and responsibilities shifting on a week-to-week basis. While that may have made it more difficult for opposing coaches to game-plan for the Buckeyes, opposing players had little trouble executing their core concepts, as those offenses had often practiced their schemes all season long, when the Buckeyes had only a week or two to practice theirs.

Much in the same way Urban Meyer and Tom Herman approach the offense – calling for the inside running game to drive everything else they do – I expect Ash’s biggest impact to be the emergence of a real identity for the Ohio State Defense as the 2014 season progresses.


Comments Show All Comments

Killer nuts's picture

Welcome aboard Kyle! Great breakdown, very informative 

+3 HS
BroJim's picture

Good read, thanks Kyle. I don't really care what shape the D takes as long as it improves.

I season my simple food with hunger

+1 HS
InvertMyVeer's picture

That's one heck of a debut article! Welcome aboard Kyle.

Football is complicated...

+3 HS
mc22's picture

Just an observation.  Stuff like this is awesome.  And detailed. But does any other site breakdown their D or O like 11W does?  Does Goblow..or Tennecheat...or other $EC sites provide this type of detail to fans?  

I'd rather the free world not know specifics about our team and let others do their homework - not provide them a cheat sheet.

I understand each game is situational and all info given is not top secret  -but i can't imagine it not being passed along to some inquiring minds.

I'll stop toking on the paranoia weed - but just an observation and a question.

Killer nuts's picture

While this is very helpful and informative to the casual fan I am very confident that it is remedial and obvious to opposing coaching staffs, no need to fret. Just enjoy that eleven warriors helps us be more intelligent fans

+5 HS
omahabeef1337's picture

Thanks Kyle. I have a quick question for you: The way Ross has been explaining the cover-4 Ash runs is that both safeties will come hard at run action. How does explanation mesh with what you said about one coming into the box faster on run action? (Not saying you or Ross missed anything. I'm probably just missing a nuance here.)


+1 HS
Kyle Jones's picture

Great question - I think what Ross and I have both tried to say is that all the DBs can responsible in Cover 4 for crashing down in run support, depending on their responsibility within a given play-call, offensive formation, and so on. I just tried to show one example here, that happened to be the Free Safety coming down in support. Any and all of the DBs will be called upon to do that within the scheme, with the key takeaway being that Ash will call on these guys to step up and make plays in the run game. There won't be guys that ONLY play the pass in his defensive backfield.

CGroverL's picture

What gets me about "safeties helping on the run and stuffing the box" is that the major weakness to the "cover 4" defense is playing against play action passes. I know that the hieroglyphics are tough (the drawings on Ash's cover 4 defense) but bringing safeties up makes you weaker against the deep pass. On top of that, I just read an article where Meyer said "Fickell will be calling the plays" where I have been hearing that Ash will be calling the plays and Buckeye fans seem happy about it!!! Does anyone know the truth? A new DL coach and secondary coach... I think we need Fick calling the plays. After all, if there was a pic in the dictionary of an "Ohio State Buckeye", it should be a pic of Luke Fickell. He was born in and grew up in Columbus. He played his college football at Ohio State where he started a record 50 consecutive games at nose guard, and then besides one season as a member of the New Orleans Saints and 2 years as Akron's DL coach, he has been a Buckeye through and through as he has been coaching at Ohio State in one way or another since 1999. Luke Fickell bleeds scarlet and gray more than anyone.     Go Bucks and welcome to Chris Ash and Larry Johnson. I wonder how many nuances I missed in my comment.........







"I hope they're last in everything". One of Meyer's comments when speaking of TTUN after being hired at Ohio State.



BuckeyeJ's picture

Welcome! Great read

toad1204's picture

It's a good thing someone wrote this down, Bert knows how his defense works now. 

Nothing like dancing on the field in 02... 

+6 HS
Ahh Saturday's picture

Great read Kyle.  It's content like this that keeps me coming back to 11W.  Regarding the quarter-quarter-half coverage, it seemed to me that Roby was often criticized for "blowing" coverages that weren't his responsibility last season.  People would see him running after some guy that had got in behind him, but his responsibility was in the curl or flat.  If you're going to run qqh, you're gonna need a guy who can cover that deep half.  Who do you see as the most likely player for that coverage in '14?  Also, Roby was excellent in run support last year.  People who roasted him for his coverage against Abarabadoobis last year rarely mention how he destroyed Wiscy's fly sweep.  Do you think Doran Grant has the run-stopping skill to play that position in '14, or will another player take over Roby's responsibility in qqh?

+1 HS
Kyle Jones's picture

The Wisconsin game was just one example of the OSU defense trying to do to many things at once, which Ross has discussed at length. OSU has never been much of a man-to-man coverage team, yet decided to play a lot of it against Wisco. While Roby did struggle a bit in that specific example, you are right about him often taking the blame for issues that weren't his responsibility, especially in QQH coverage. He was the most consistent DB in run support BY FAR for OSU over the past couple years, and rarely got the credit he deserved in that regard, as getting beat deep a couple times tends to skew many people's opinions about a corner (unfortunately).

mb5599's picture

Why does'nt OSU run more aggessive man to man schemes?  Is it that we do not have the right personnel?  If so, why are'nt we recruiting those types of players?  As bad as the defense was last year, I'm not sure if "tweaking" the current defensive schemes will fix the problem.  I'm not completely sold on Ash's hire.  I would have liked to have seen someone who utilizes an aggressive man to man approach.  I hope Ash is successful and can turn things around though.

Big B

-1 HS
Wesleyburgess1's picture

The Aggressive Cover 4 they have been talking about is basically a Read and React (pattern matching) defense. That is a whole whole lot of man to man defense my friend. If they successfully install this coverage I for one will be very happy. 

+1 HS
BuckRock's picture

Has anyone noticed in the pictures above!!


His Cornerbacks are playing 10 yards off the receiver's!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Enough Said......same tune.............different name!

I am selling this hire, my opinion!



-2 HS
Kyle Jones's picture

The problem with running an aggressive man-to-man scheme, especially at the college level, is consistently finding 3-4 DBs that you can trust to not get beat, every play. It's not just about having one corner than can cover, to run man across the board, EVERY DB needs to be able to cover. This rarely happens in the nfl, much less when you're working with 18-22 year olds. People say guys like Revis and Sherman are "lockdown" corners, which is true, but they are so hard to find that you can't build a system around that. 

Additionally, with the advent of spread offenses and running QBs, it's imperative for DBs to be involved in stopping the run (as noted in the article). It's nearly impossible to keep an eye in the backfield while you're responsible for covering a guy in man coverage and your back is turned to the ball.

InvertMyVeer's picture

To be fair Aribberderchis did go for over 200 yards in that game, some criticism was valid.

Football is complicated...

Kyle Jones's picture

He absolutely deserved the criticism for getting beat in that game. However, that criticism often became the narrative for him during the second half of the season, overshadowing the great work he was doing in other areas.

Bamabucknut's picture

Great article.

Where does the aggression and causing problems for the offense come in ?

How is our defense NOT become another bend but not break defense that consistently gave up 12-15 yards against even mediocre teams like we have had in the past ?

in other words please translate the BENEFITS of the defense that fans can expect to see.

-1 HS
Kyle Jones's picture

What separated the OSU defense in 2012 & 2013 from past OSU defenses was the lack of discipline and consistency that keeps a 12 yard gain from turning into a 32 yard gain. All too often, defensive backs and linebackers were often out of position creating holes for the offense to exploit.

Under Ash, that should stop. Guys won't be asked to line up in all kinds of different formations and coverages, and thus, should be in better position to simply make the plays that are there, instead of having to think too much about where they're supposed to be. 

BuckeyeSouth's picture

Great writeup, Kyle, and welcome aboard.

Champions.  Undisputed.  

+1 HS
Seattle Linga's picture

Nice way to start the day Kyle - thumbs up all around.

+1 HS
bethesdabuck's picture

Thanks, Kyle. Do you have any opinions on how the kind of corners we currently have on the roster will do in Ash's defense? With Roby gone, do you see any in particular excelling in run coverage? 

+1 HS
Kyle Jones's picture

Grant certainly has the size to be a factor in the run game, and did a good job last season when he was moved into the boundary CB spot during Roby's absences. He is the only sure thing to start in the defensive backfield, one would think. 

Beyond that though, this spring will mean a lot for who takes the next step. Reeves will need to improve if he wants to grab the other starting spot, and it could well be that he was overwhelmed by last season's inconsistent game plans, causing him to be out of position on numerous occasions. I wouldn't be shocked if Ash's system makes him more comfortable, and he is the starter against Navy.

Jdadams01's picture

Good write-up, Kyle, and welcome!

So from what I'm reading, Ash is more of a "I'm gonna line my guys up and expect them to make the right read and beat your guys" coach than someone who is constantly blitzing to create havoc... is this correct?

allinosu's picture

Early in the season when Roby was out, Reeves came in and looked lost. Every play other backs were screaming at him his responsibilities and pointing out his man. Then against Michigan st. the spartans ran a tight end crossing route and the linebacker on that side looked right at him before moving up to cover the back out of the backfield and since the corner behind moved to double a post pattern it was an easy TD. Is Ash the type of coach to fix things like this because I don't think I can stand things like that again on a consistent basis.

Jdadams01's picture

The "easy" fix is not to play someone who doesn't know their responsibilities. The question is, did we have anyone who did know what to do? IMO, for whatever it's worth, they should have played Burrows as he couldn't have been any more lost than Reeves was and he has a higher ceiling athletically.

+1 HS
Buckeye_in_SEC_country's picture

So basically Ash is going to bring organization, discipline, structure, and understanding to the defense.  What was so hard for Withers and Fickell that they couldn't provide that?

+1 HS
Hovenaut's picture

Great write-up, and even amongst all this Madness I'm easily reminded why I'm a football (and defensive) fan first.

Welcome aboard, Kyle!



+1 HS
ghalephoto's picture

The one thing that seems to be missing in all of this is Urban Meyer.  He will not only have a say in schemes and personel he will have a say during games.  His input will be a huge part of the years defense...going to be interesting to see if he stays involved or gets to the point that he likes what he sees.

Colerain 2004 G.O.A.T.'s picture

If we can get great coverage out of our safeties and not give up too many deep balls this Quarters D can really shut some teams completely down.Have seen Bama run it and only seem like they gave up a 100 yards a game a couple of times,then they try against Tx a&m and give up 600. Only teams I see giving this D a problem would be both weasel and weasel st.PSU minus team Robinson shouldnt be a problem but playing in Chesterville is never a given.

I speak the truth but I guess that's a foreign language to yall.~~Lil Wayne

bull1214's picture

good stuff kyle. especially mentioning how missed tackles and just not making the play is the biggest thing that needs fixed. getting off blocks and making a tackle completely changes the Clemson outcome imo.

buckeyehub's picture

Fantastic article, welcome aboard Kyle! I think I became quite a bit smarter after reading this article, makes me that more excited how these players execute under Ash!

“Anyone can run the option. I can run the option.” - Urban Meyer
Let's beat the snot out of *ichigan.

BuckRock's picture

His corners in the pics above, playing 10-12 yards off the reicever.  You would think they had 2 Terrell Owens on the field by the looks of

those corners.

-2 HS
Horvath22's picture

Welcome aboard, Kyle. Great job.