As one of the new co-coordinators of Ohio State’s defense, Greg Mattison – in collaboration with fellow co-coordinator Jeff Hafley, associate head coach Larry Johnson and the rest of the Buckeyes’ defensive coaching staff – is tasked with implementing a new scheme that will put the Buckeyes in a position to be more successful on that side of the ball this season.
That said, Mattison doesn’t believe that scheme is the key to the Buckeyes’ defensive success this year.
What Mattison actually believes Ohio State needs to have a great defense are great defensive players – and a lot of them – and he believes the Buckeyes have them.
So as Mattison leads the way in constructing Ohio State’s defense for the 2019 season, there isn’t necessarily one specific thing he’s looking for the Buckeyes to do schematically all the time.
Instead, he wants the Buckeyes to have a multitude of interchangeable parts throughout their entire defense that allow them to be scheme-versatile.
“There are only so many things I believe in really sound defensive football that you can do, whether you’re in the NFL, whether you’re wherever coaching. And I think that means you’ve got to be able to play an eight-man front at times, you’ve got to be able to play man at times, you’ve got to be able to play zone and you’ve got to be able to pressure. And all of those depend really on the type of players you have,” Mattison said. “It’s never been schemes that have won. It’s what you teach the players to run, and then who’s running them. And I’ve been really, really impressed with our players.”
The only thing that is set in stone for Ohio State’s defense, at the request of new head coach Ryan Day, is that the Buckeyes’ defense will be based out of a four-man front. With Johnson still coaching the Buckeyes’ defensive line – as the only returning member of last year’s defensive coaching staff – Day felt strongly that the Buckeyes should not deviate from what has already worked for them up front.
Other than that, the door has been left open for the Buckeyes’ new defensive coordinators to experiment, and experiment they have this spring. Most notably, the Buckeyes have added a new position – the Bullet – which combines elements of both safety and linebacker play, with Brendon White in line to play that position this season.
That position is designed for interchangeability, as the Buckeyes expect White to line up all over the field.
“That guy can play secondary, he can play middle safety, he can play half field safety and he can come down and be your old strong safety. And then at the same time, he can be that 9-technique, Sam outside linebacker,” Mattison said of the Bullet position. “Then what takes him to the next step is can he also blitz. And if he has that ability to blitz too, you’ve got the whole package.”
At times, the Bullet will be on the field in place of a strongside linebacker, in addition to four defensive backs. But the Buckeyes will still have three traditional linebackers on the field at times, as well – which could mean White playing safety, like he did in Ohio State’s final six games of last season, but could also mean the Buckeyes only playing one deep safety at times.
That’s all part of the interchangeability that Mattison is looking for.
“We could go a whole game in Bullet, and then the same time we could go a whole game in regular,” Mattison said.
If White proves capable of playing in all areas of the field, it will allow Mattison to make changes on the fly against up-tempo offenses that might not allow him to substitute full packages in and out of the game between plays.
“It used to be, ‘Hey, I’m going to put this group in, this group in, all that,’” Mattison said. “And they don’t that with tempo now. They’re making it hard for me to do that. Well now, you have a guy that if he’s the right guy and he shows it, he can play the run strong enough and then help you with the things you want to do in the secondary also.”
While the Bullet position is a separate position that only certain players might be qualified to play – Jahsen Wint is the only other player on the roster practicing regularly at that spot this spring, while Pete Werner and K’Vaughan Pope are lining up as more traditional Sam linebackers – Mattison does want the Buckeyes’ other linebackers, specifically the Mike and Will linebackers, to be interchangeable with each other, as well.
“The Mike’s got to play Will, the Will’s got to play Mike,” Mattison said. “You’re gonna always put your best players on the field. So as the spring’s over with and we rank them, it might be this Mike is No. 1, this guy’s No. 2, this Will is No. 3. Well, if something happens, that Will goes over to Mike. And I’ve always been a believer, if you know the position next to you, you play yours better, because you understand everything that’s going on.”
Mattison has been working primarily with the linebackers and the Bullets this spring, alongside linebackers coach Al Washington, with Johnson leading the way with the defensive line and Hafley and Matt Barnes leading the way in the secondary. That said, he believes the Buckeyes should have interchangeable players at all levels of their defense – which will also be crucial to their ability to play at a consistently high level, particularly against up-tempo offenses.
He wants Ohio State’s defensive starters to feel as though they can ask for a break any time they are tired, knowing that the next man can come in and also do their job effectively.
“What we demand of our defense and that is you are playing 4 to 6, A to B, as hard and as fast as you can,” Mattison said. “There’s no such thing as a loaf. And therefore, you’re asking four down defensive linemen to go as hard and as fast as they can. You’re asking three linebackers to go as hard and as fast as they can on every play. If you can’t do that anymore, raise your hand, and there’s somebody that we’re getting ready to be able to go in and give you a break.
“That’s our deal,” Mattison continued. “That we have enough depth, and we have enough talent, that the next guy steps up, gives you a break. It doesn’t mean you did something wrong. It means you can come back and be way, way more healthy, and way more vibrant, way more energy and then the next guy goes back in again.”
When the spring comes to an end following next Saturday’s spring game, Ohio State’s coaches will meet to begin building their depth chart for the fall, and surely there are at least a few players – Chase Young and Jordan Fuller immediately come to mind – who will stand out as clear-cut starters. Mattison’s belief, however, is that there should not be a substantial drop-off between the first row of the depth chart and the second row of the depth chart, allowing the Buckeyes to rotate regularly at any position and feel confident in doing so.
“I believe when you have a really, really good defense, you don’t have a first and second team. You have a first first team and you have a second first team,” Mattison said. “And that’s how it’s going to look. When Chase Young gets tired from going as hard as he can go, all he has to do with Larry is just raise his hand and there’s the next guy that has worked as hard as he could through spring and summer and in camp, he’s now ready to go in. And the same thing at linebacker.”