Now that assistant defensive coordinator, cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs is reportedly headed to the Tennessee Titans, that’s the question for Ohio State: Who will replace Coombs on the coaching staff?
An ace recruiter with a unique level of energy who repeatedly developed first-round draft picks at his position, Coombs will not be easy to replace.
The good news for the Buckeyes, though, is that they should have plenty of options for filling the newest vacancy on their staff.
First of all, the Buckeyes don’t necessarily have to fill the vacancy by hiring another cornerbacks coach. Newly hired defensive assistant coach Alex Grinch, whose specific role on the coaching staff has not yet been defined, was the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Washington State and could slide into each of Coombs’ roles as co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach.
Still, with the uncertain future of defensive coordinator and safeties coach Greg Schiano – who is expected to make his own move to the NFL or become a college head coach sooner than later – it would nonetheless make sense for the Buckeyes to hire another coach with a background coaching defensive backs, ideally another young rising star in the industry with the potential to eventually be a co-defensive coordinator alongside Grinch.
What should be expected, regardless of what the next coaching hire’s ultimate responsibilities might be, is that Coombs will be replaced with another defensive coach, as the Buckeyes will want to keep their number of assistants even between offense and defense. It’s also possible, though, that Ohio State could replace Coombs by hiring a coach whose primary responsibility is to coach special teams, a move the Buckeyes could afford to make now that they 10 full-time on-field assistant coaches.
Given the flexibility that Grinch’s to-be-determined role gives the Buckeyes in making their next hire, the most important criterion of their new coach might not be an ability to fill any specific role in on-field coaching, but the ability to fill Coombs’ void in recruiting, where Coombs played a key role in the Buckeyes reeling in many top talents during his six years on staff. Considering that Coombs specifically played a key role in recruiting the Cincinnati and Detroit areas, as well as in Atlanta and Florida, Ohio State could look to replace him with another coach who has established ties in those areas.
There are a multitude of factors that could make coaches from throughout the country appealing to the Buckeyes, which means there are no clear-cut favorites to get the job. Assistant coaching hires often come from off the radar, so putting together an exhaustive list of candidates would be a nearly impossible task. The following eight coaches, however, are all coaches who would make sense to emerge as candidates for one reason or another.
Anthony Campanile, Defensive Backs Coach, Boston College
Named as college football’s 2017 defensive backs coach of the year by both FootballScoop and 247Sports, Campanile could be at or near the top of the Buckeyes’ list – especially if Schiano plans to stick around for at least one more year. Campanile played for Schiano at Rutgers from 2001-04, and has spent the past two years working for Meyer protégé and close friend Steve Addazio at Boston College.
Coaching at a school that lacks the resources to compete with college football’s powerhouses, Campanile has been the top recruiter on his staff for each of the past two years, also according to 247Sports. Campanile could strengthen the Buckeyes’ footprint in New Jersey, a state where the Buckeyes have recruited significantly in the Meyer era, as he is a former coach at state powerhouse Don Bosco Prep – from where the Buckeyes recently landed a commitment from Tyler Friday – while his brother, Nunzio, is the head coach at fellow state powerhouse Bergen Catholic.
Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, Cornerbacks Coach, Maryland
Abdul-Rahim has been a star on the recruiting trail in his first two seasons as Maryland’s defensive backs coach, ranking 19th in 247Sports’ recruiter rankings in 2017 and currently standing 22nd in those recruiter rankings for the class of 2018. A former head coach at Washington, D.C. high school power Friendship Collegiate Academy, Abdul-Rahim has been able to attract top talent from the DMV area to Maryland, and could strengthen the ties the Buckeyes already have in that area with defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
Having also spent the past two years working for a highly respected Meyer protégé in D.J. Durkin, Abdul-Rahim’s experience within the Big Ten East would be advantageous to his transition to Ohio State, where he would be a natural fit to replace Coombs as cornerbacks coach while potentially being groomed for co-coordinating duty in the future.
Demetrice Martin, Defensive Backs Coach, Free Agent (UCLA)
As UCLA’s defensive backs coach for the past six seasons, Martin has been a star recruiter in his own right, ranking as highly as fourth nationally in 247Sports’ recruiter rankings for the class of 2013. Martin finished 14th in 247’s recruiter rankings for the class of 2017, notably scoring a big win over the Buckeyes by securing a signing from five-star cornerback Darnay Holmes.
Martin is known for his ability to build relationships with players on the recruiting trail, and UCLA’s passing defenses – for which he was also the passing game coordinator – were generally successful during his tenure. He is on the free agent market now, however, after new UCLA head coach Chip Kelly decided not to retain him. Martin is reportedly a candidate to join Kevin Sumlin’s new staff at Arizona – he recently began following the Wildcats’ official football team account, as well as others associated with the program, on Twitter – but he hasn’t yet been officially hired by the Wildcats, leaving open the possibility that Meyer and the Buckeyes could swoop in with an offer.
Steven Clinkscale, Defensive Backs Coach, Kentucky
Having been the defensive backs coach at Kentucky for the past two years and a co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Cincinnati before that, Clinkscale’s regional ties could make him an appealing option to replace Coombs. While Kentucky has been aggressive in recent years in recruiting the players that Ohio State hasn’t wanted in Ohio, Clinkscale has also been successful recruiting the Detroit area, landing two of the state of Michigan’s top 10 recruits for the class of 2018.
Clinkscale’s secondary struggled during the 2017 season, when Kentucky ranked 103rd in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 251.6 passing yards allowed per game, so it’s questionable whether Clinkscale has the on-field coaching chops to be an adequate replacement for Coombs as cornerbacks coach. From a recruiting standpoint, however, Clinkscale’s background could be exactly what the Buckeyes need in replacing Coombs.
Fran Brown, Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Backs, Baylor
Brown is another assistant coach who fits the mold that Ohio State could be looking for in Coombs’ replacement: a young rising star with an impressive track record on the recruiting trail and experience coaching defensive backs.
While Baylor was one of the worst teams in college football last year – a reality that was understandable, quite frankly, given the turmoil that happened around that program before Brown and the rest of Matt Rhule's coaching staff arrived – Brown has been a top performer on the recruiting trail, personally recruiting 11 commits (including a quartet of four-stars) to Baylor for the 2018 class. While he has strong ties to the East Coast from his time coaching at Temple (where he initially worked for Addazio) and New Jersey high school football, Brown has also shown he can make an immediate impact as a recruiter in Texas – a state in which the Buckeyes have increasingly found talent during the Meyer era.
Marcus Freeman, Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers Coach, Cincinnati
Should the Buckeyes go in a direction other than hiring a defensive backs coach, one of the most intriguing options would be Freeman, a former Ohio State linebacker who is coming off of his first season working for former Ohio State linebackers coach Luke Fickell at Cincinnati.
Freeman would give the Buckeyes a former Ohio State player on their full-time coaching staff – something they haven’t had since Fickell’s departure last year – and another linebackers coach who could help Bill Davis, whose unit had a disappointing 2017 season in his first year as linebackers coach, get his position group back to the level at which it previously performed under Fickell.
There’s certainly a question of whether Freeman would leave a defensive coordinator position for a role in which he would likely start out as only a position coach, but it would likely come with a pay raise – he only made $275,000 in 2017, less than any Ohio State assistant coach, according to USA TODAY’s assistant coach salaries database – and give him an opportunity to potentially grow into a bigger role while working for his alma mater.
Bill Sheridan, Linebackers Coach, Free Agent (Detroit Lions)
While Coombs certainly proved to be the right man for the job at Ohio State, he wasn’t originally slated to be a member of Meyer’s first Buckeyes coaching staff. That job only opened up for him when Sheridan, less than a month after being hired as an assistant coach for the 2012 Buckeyes, left that post to be the defensive coordinator for the Buccaneers – whose head coach at the time, ironically enough, was Schiano.
Sheridan’s departure might have ultimately been a blessing in disguise for the Buckeyes. But now that Coombs is on his way to the NFL, it’s possible the two coaches could come full circle.
After spending the past four years coaching linebackers for the Detroit Lions, Sheridan is currently on the free agent market after it was reported earlier this week that he would not be retained by incoming Lions head coach Matt Patricia. It’s uncertain whether Meyer would want to hire Sheridan again, considering how abruptly he left the first time, but Meyer certainly thought highly of Sheridan when he initially hired him six years ago.
"Bill Sheridan is a perfect fit for our program," Meyer said in 2012. "His experiences in the NFL are huge. He has Midwest roots and, most importantly, he wants to be an Ohio State Buckeye. I am really impressed with him and I think he is going to be a terrific addition to our defensive staff as a coach, teacher and as a recruiter."
Matt Thurin, Defensive Quality Control Coach, Ohio State
While the Buckeyes are likely to conduct a national search in hopes of finding the best possible assistant coach for their newest vacancy, they could choose to promote from within if they believe they already have a coach in the building who is qualified for the job. Ohio State has multiple quality control coaches and graduate assistants who could meet those qualifications – including Bob Fraser, a former defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for Schiano at Rutgers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Adam Scheier, a former special teams coordinator at Bowling Green and Wake Forest – but the strongest candidate among them might be defensive quality control coach Matt Thurin.
Thurin has been on the Buckeyes’ staff since 2015, so he has three seasons’ worth of familiarity with Meyer and the rest of the program, and has previous experience as a secondary coach and special teams coordinator at Columbia. Promoting Thurin would likely come at a more affordable rate than luring a position coach away from another program, and could make for an easy transition given the relationships he already has with Buckeyes coaches and players.