The Hurry-Up: Kerry Coombs Return Brings “Instant Credibility” for Ohio State on Recruiting Trail, Plus Comfort, Familiarity for Players Like Lejond Cavazos

By Zack Carpenter on January 20, 2020 at 5:31 pm
Kerry Coombs
Kerry Coombs

The Hurry-Up is your nightly dose of updates from the Ohio State football recruiting trail, keeping tabs on the latest from commits and targets from around the country.

Coombs returns

C.J. Cavazos sat down with Ryan Day on Dec. 13 in Sarasota, Fla., the father of one of Ohio State’s 2020 recruiting class’ cornerbacks, Lejond Cavazos, getting any potential last-minute worries squashed. 

It was the final weekend before the Dec. 18-20 early signing period, and on this Friday morning, the two were having an 8 a.m. breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton amid swirling speculations that a Jeff Hafley departure to Boston College could be reported any hour. Any minute. 

The Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach – whose coaching had been dubbed “life-changing” by the defensive back room’s star, Jeff Okudah, had flipped the entire secondary around 180 degrees, had a major helping hand in transforming one of the program’s worst defenses into one of its best and had made a heavy impact in recruiting in less than one year on the job – was rumored to be going back to his east coast roots. 

About 12 hours later, those rumors proved true, and the next day, Hafley was officially announced as the Eagles’ head coach.

Cavazos already knew Hafley would take the job. He had been preparing Lejond for that reality for at least a month. So Cavazos asked Day about his contingency plan. Did Day have a plan, or was he taking it on good faith that Hafley would remain with the Buckeyes for a second year? 

Of course not. Coaching moves are fluid, and nobody knows that better than Day. The 40-year-old first-year head coach (of any program) has been a coach at five different places in the last seven years, so he knows how quickly things can change, families uprooted for better opportunities and recruits’ minds shifted. He always has a plan. 

Day and Cavazos didn’t mention any specific coaches who could be potential replacements for Hafley that day, but Cavazos’ belief and trust in Day only strengthened during that conversation. 

“Ryan always told me that he was gonna hire the best coach available to coach the defensive backs at The Ohio State, and I trusted him,” Cavazos told Eleven Warriors on Monday. “I trust in Ryan Day. I always have, and I always will.  … We didn’t really talk about (specific coaches to replace Hafley). We didn’t wanna go there. I just knew if anything happened, I knew Ryan was gonna get the best coach. Which he did.”

That trust paid off on Monday afternoon. Kerry Coombs, Ohio State’s defensive backs coach from 2012-17, was officially announced as the Buckeyes’ new defensive coordinator, marking a long-rumored, well-sourced return to Ohio after spending two seasons as the Tennessee Titans’ secondary coach and signifying that trusting in Day to have a plan in place was the right thing to do.

“It kind of tells you what Ohio State is all about,” Cavazos said. “It’s been a journey that says Ohio State looks for the best coaches in the country. Kerry Coombs leaves after Lejond’s freshman year and goes to the Titans for two years. They bring in Taver (Johnson). Taver leaves and goes to the Oakland Raiders. They bring in Hafley, and Hafley comes from the 49ers and leaves to be a head coach at Boston College.

“You’re not gonna bring in bad coaches to Ohio State. Whenever a coach leaves, every coach in the country wants to coach at Ohio State. It’s a great job with great athletes, great facilities and a great fan base. So you’re not gonna have a problem bringing in a great coach. You just get to pick the best of the best, and that’s what Ryan has the luxury of doing.”

Full-circle ending

Coombs doesn’t just bring back familiarity and comfort to Buckeye veterans such as Shaun Wade, Amir Riep, Marcus Williamson, Tyreke Johnson and Sevyn Banks – all of whom he recruited to Ohio State in his first stint. It’s the same for C.J. and Lejond, the new Buckeye who began classes just two weeks ago as a mid-year enrollee. 

“We’ve had three DB coaches (recruit Lejond),” C.J. Cavazos said. “We’ve had Kerry, Taver, Hafley, and now we’re coming full circle back to Kerry.”

Coombs began recruiting Lejond when he was a Texas freshman at Cibolo Steele High School, where he was a 6-foot, 185-pound safety whose only varsity experience to that point had come during the team’s postseason run as a running back with a limited role, but his recruitment was beginning to pick up major heat that spring. 

So the Cavazos’ made a trip to Columbus in April 2016, meeting Coombs on the practice field at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center the day prior to the team’s final walk-through before the spring game. Following the practice, they made the walk over to Coombs’ office, where their first impression of him was the same as anybody else’s familiar with him. 

“Loud. Loud,” C.J. Cavazos says of that first meeting. “Very, very enthusiastic. Very, very passionate about the game. A players’ coach, and other guys loved him. That was my first impression, and to this day that’s my same impression I have of him with the Titans.”

Were there any cans of Red Bull sitting on his desk?

“I don’t think he needs Red Bull,” Cavazos said. “I think he’s one of those high-energy guys. He’s just one of those guys that coaches off emotion and loves what he does and does what he loves. It’s not a job when you love what you do and you do what you love. I really think that’s what Kerry Coombs is. I really feel that about him.”

They soon walked over to Urban Meyer’s office, where Meyer and Coombs offered Lejond, in C.J.’s estimation, his 10th or 11th Division I full-ride scholarship.

Though Lejond would eventually transfer to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., prior to his sophomore season, Coombs was one of the first coaches to go all-in on Lejond from the start of his high school career, and he was the first Buckeye DB coach to do so.

“Believe it or not, as young as Lejond was, he made Lejond a priority and when we spoke, I always had to initiate the contact because NCAA rules didn’t allow him to contact me,” Cavazos said. “There were times when I initiated the contact, he always answered, and we always spoke. I’m excited about him having the opportunity to coach Lejond and coach all those defensive backs. He’s gonna do a great job. It’s a great room full of a bunch of great young men that just wanna be guided to be better than what they are today, and that’s what Kerry Coombs is gonna do.”

“Instant credibility”

As far as what the re-hire of Coombs does for the Buckeyes’ defensive backs recruiting going forward? To Cavazos, a former high school and college coach himself, he believes it gives Ohio State “instant credibility.”

“Every parent in the country who sends their kid to Ohio State to play defensive back has two objectives – No. 1 is get him on the field and No. 2 is get their kid an opportunity to get to play in the National Football League,” Cavazos said. “Kerry Coombs gives your kids the opportunity to get on the field, No. 1, and No. 2, he’s been coaching in the NFL so he knows what it takes. It gives them instant credibility from Kerry Coombs to be at Ohio State again.”

After having coached in the NFL for two full seasons, perhaps Coombs’ 100-mile-an-hour, fully energized approach might be scaled back a tad when he returns to a Day-led program. Probably not. But maybe. 

No matter the personality, Coombs brings back what Cavazos compares to a dog years-like experience coaching in the pros. 

“I’m sure he’s gonna do a better job of coaching and a better job of teaching because being in the NFL for two years is like being a dog – 2 years old is like 10 years old,” Cavazos said. “It wears their asses out because they’re workers – they’re grinders – in the NFL.”

Even with the wait to get back on the field, Cavazos says his son is "ecstatic" about Coombs coming to Columbus, and certainly many of the other DBs are, too. They’ll get their first real taste of what Coombs’ coaching is like on March 2, when spring camp opens up, and fans will get to see him in action on April 11 for the spring game.

“I’m sure Kerry got a pretty good bump in salary, and he’s gonna do better financially and get to go back and coach young kids and recruit,” Cavazos said. “He loves recruiting. Coaching in the NFL is a grind, and it’s all football. At least in college, you can get out and recruit and meet kids and high school coaches and get down to the roots of what football is all about. He might’ve missed that.”

Onto Martinez, 2021

If Coombs did miss the recruiting aspect of the job, he won't have any issues hitting the ground running and hitting the trail hard. 

First up will be talking with, and meeting with, the Buckeyes' final priority in the 2020 class, four-star athlete Cameron Martinez, the Muskegon (Mich.) High School star quarterback who is expected to move to defensive back if he stays true to his commitment and signs with Ohio State. 

Martinez chose to not sign during the early signing period in December, instead waiting to see who Ohio State would hire in place of Hafley. Now that Coombs is firmly in place, perhaps that will solidify Columbus as being his college destination and solidify the Buckeyes' fourth-ranked national recruiting class.

Going beyond, the Buckeyes' 2021 recruiting will center around running back and defensive back, as Ohio State has several highly prized, highly ranked cornerbacks and safeties at the top of its recruiting board. 

About a month ago, there were rumblings that Ohio State was close to landing a commitment from a junior defensive back, but the uncertainty of who the secondary coach would be played a part in nixing that. With Coombs officially back to town, perhaps another commitment could be coming sooner than later. 

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