For the first time in more than 15 years, Ohio State has an assistant coach whose primary responsibility is to coach special teams.
The addition of designated special teams coordinators to college football coaching staffs is a relatively recent trend, as staff sizes have become larger, and Ohio State’s last two head coaches – Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer – both took a hands-on approach to coaching special teams.
Meyer assistants Kerry Coombs and Taver Johnson were special teams coordinators in title, but their primary responsibilities were coaching cornerbacks, and special teams were truly a collaborative effort led by the head coach.
New head coach Ryan Day, however, is delegating the responsibility of leading the third phase of the game to new assistant coach Matt Barnes, who will also assist new co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley in coaching the Buckeyes’ secondary but will primarily serve as Ohio State’s special teams coordinator.
Day hired Barnes because he was impressed with Barnes’ work last season at Maryland, where he led the Terrapins’ defensive play calling efforts last season in addition to his roles as special teams coordinator and linebackers coach.
“He was in a tough spot there,” Day said during his National Signing Day press conference. “He was doing special teams and the defense. I've never heard of that before for somebody at his age. I think he's really knowledgeable, a good, young coach. Going to bring a lot of value to us.”
Day, who is expected to continue working most closely with the offense after serving as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the past two years, might not spend as much time working directly on special teams as Meyer and Tressel did. But that doesn’t mean that special teams will be any less of a priority for the Buckeyes, and Barnes will be able to dedicate his time to coaching the special teams units in a way that a head coach cannot.
“The head coach wears so many hats, and there will be many things that come across his desk that will thankfully never be anywhere near mine,” Barnes said on National Signing Day. “So it affords me the opportunity to really dive headfirst in it with minimal distractions.”
Barnes recognizes the emphasis that Meyer and Tressel’s Ohio State teams placed on special teams, and now, it’s his responsibility to ensure that the Buckeyes’ success in that phase of the game continues.
“Just trying to continue to develop and continue to cultivate the importance of special teams, which has been phenomenal here,” Barnes said. “It's been done at the highest level here. So that's already in place. So just continuing to develop that is a big part of it.”
Meyer didn’t shy away from playing starters on several special teams units – for example, starting wide receiver Terry McLaurin was a staple on the punt team as a gunner last season – and Barnes says Ohio State will continue to play its best players on special teams.
Meyer also had a stated requirement that players had to earn roles on special teams, first, before they would earn the opportunity to play regularly on offense or defense. Day hasn’t said explicitly whether that will continue to be the expectation for his Buckeyes, but Barnes said that special teams will continue to be a proving ground for young players.
“I think you've got to find that happy medium there of playing your best players, but also giving your young players a chance to develop and show themselves,” Barnes said.
With the exception of specialists (kickers, punters, long snappers and holders), Barnes says the same “general fundamentals of playing the game of football” that apply to offense and defense also apply to special teams, making it a good area for young players to hone their skill sets. Because special teams doesn’t require a player to learn an extensive number of plays, it’s an area where a player can potentially contribute even if he hasn’t yet mastered the intricacies of the offense or defense.
“There are some little things, scheme things here and there, but at the end of the day, we say it's technique and effort,” Barnes said regarding what a player needs to succeed on special teams. “So get those guys right on their technique early on, and just watch them go play with their hair on fire. Definitely gives those young guys an opportunity to do something that they understand more quickly than maybe something at their offensive or defensive position, and a chance to go show what they can do.”
“I think you've got to find that happy medium there of playing your best players, but also giving your young players a chance to develop and show themselves.” – Ohio State special teams coordinator Matt Barnes
Barnes also knows it is important to develop young players on special teams in order to have depth as the season progresses. He learned that the hard way last season at Maryland, where his punt team was plagued by injuries over the course of the year.
“It's a war of attrition in the Big Ten. It's a long season, and it's a physical, physical league. So you've got to get everybody in your room ready to play,” Barnes said. “If you looked at the starting punt team there in training camp (at Maryland last season), I don't think other than the punter and the snapper, I don't think there was a single guy that made it through the whole season.
“You certainly want those guys that are starting for you to be as sharp as they can be, but again, everybody needs to understand they're a rolled ankle away from being in the game.”
Even with a true special teams coordinator, coaching special teams won’t be a one-man job. Barnes will receive assistance from special teams quality control coach Parker Fleming, who is entering his second season with the Buckeyes and who Barnes considers to be the best quality control coach in the country.
“Parker Fleming was very involved last year in game planning and the day-to-day things, and we've been fortunate to keep him here,” Barnes said. “And I can already tell what a bright young mind he is.”
Barnes also expects the rest of the Buckeyes’ coaches to still be invested in collaborating on special teams, as well, because that’s just part of the culture that Ohio State has.
“I think that's a big part of the culture is that all the coaches have been bought in in the past, and I expect that to continue,” Barnes said. “Guys being bought in and coaching those special teams periods as hard as they would coach their position (individual) work or whatever it may be, I expect that to continue.”
Correction: This article previously stated that Barnes was Ohio State's first assistant coach hired specifically to be a special teams coordinator. That is inaccurate, as Luke Fickell was hired as Ohio State's special teams coordinator in 2002 and stayed in that role until 2004, when he became the Buckeyes' linebackers coach.