There's No 'I' in Defensive Juggernaut

By Kyle Rowland on April 24, 2014 at 8:30a

Marrying coaching philosophies and ideologies is easier than it sounds. When egos get involved, conflicts are inevitable. Ohio State’s 2013 defensive staff had differing opinions, especially in the secondary, which ultimately contributed to the unit’s alarming play.

New coaches signal a clean slate. There’s a buzz surrounding the entire defense, with the improved backfield earning high marks. Luke Fickell, a lifelong Buckeye; Kerry Coombs, an original member of Urban Meyer’s Ohio State staff; Chris Ash, a protégé of the despised Bret Bielema; and Larry Johnson, a Penn Stater to the core, are charged with correcting Ohio State’s defensive deficiencies.

So far, so good.

“It’s completely meshed together very well,” head coach Urban Meyer said during spring drills.

After finishing 46th in total defense and a woeful 112th in pass defense, a new voice was needed, and it arrived in the form of Chris Ash. Questions will continued to be asked of the defense into the summer and fall – with plenty of answers forthcoming – but it’s already taking shape as a whole. And the Fickell-Ash enterprise, partnership or whatever else you want to name it offered promising returns.  

Ash is revamping much of the secondary with an eye on putting wide receivers in uncomfortable situations. In recent seasons, receivers were able to dictate most of the play sequence. Why Ash? Because he’s molded together pass defenses with three-star recruits into All-American units.

“It’s been a great transition,” Fickell said. “I know that we haven’t had the real stresses of a season, but I tell you, we’ve battled through a lot of things in the last month or so,” Fickell said. “It’s been a great growing experience for me. That’s one thing coach Meyer likes to do – get you out of your comfort zone. Having some new guys has made me do that and it’s made me broaden things that we do.”

Johnson’s not reinventing the wheel at defensive line. It’s already one of the deepest and most productive units on the team. His main goal is to establish even more depth. On the recruiting trail, Johnson is expected to deliver on his reputation as one of the nation’s finest recruiters.  

The game plan will be a collaborative effort, with Fickell calling plays on Saturdays. Doing your 1/11th has become a mantra of sorts for Ohio State, and one could say the defensive staff is tasked with doing its 1/4th.  

“It’s not any different for coaches,” Fickell said. “It doesn’t matter with titles or anything like that. The thing that I think we’ve done a good job of is we’ve been in there battling through things that we’ll be on the same page.”

Chemistry comes with time and building on relationships, according to Ash. If it becomes contagious with the coaching staff, chances are it will be ingrained into the team. Eventually, the defensive coordinator drifts into the background because players can make calls and breakdown offensive formations on the field.  

“If the defensive staff is aligned the right way, you’re preparing the right way and everybody has ownership on what you’re doing, calling plays on game day isn’t really that difficult, to be honest with you,” Ash said.

He admitted he wouldn’t have left Arkansas if he didn’t think it was possible to have a cordial working relationship with Fickell. Despite the rebuilding project in Fayetteville, Ash had a desirable job. He was calling plays, coordinating the secondary and piling up respect within the coaching profession.

The decision to leave was no different than a high school recruit. Ash believed reaching college football’s pinnacle – winning a national championship – would be more attainable at Ohio State. Winning takes a flawless cocktail of talent, coaching and luck. It’s all made easier when players and coaches are in sync.

“You don’t have to be best friends or anything,” Ash said. “But you’ve got to be on the same page, you’ve got to have a great working relationship.”

When Coombs was asked about Ash’s immersion into the staff, the energetic coach smiled and said he loved his sidekick. Coombs then explained how exposure to different coaches and fresh ideas can spur growth. Sound communication has contributed to the Buckeyes’ improvements.

“One of the things I told Coach Meyer about when [Everett Withers] left is we need to start meeting together, we need to start spending more time together as a cohesive unit,” Coombs said. “So Chris and I are able to do that and spend time together, and that’s worked out really well. He’s got good energy, he’s got good passion.”

Devoid of egos, this coaching marriage could be an endless honeymoon.

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