Kerry Coombs' First Stint at Ohio State Highlighted By Superstar Cornerbacks, Strong Passing Defenses and Unmatched Energy

By Dan Hope on January 20, 2020 at 3:25 pm
Kerry Coombs, Damon Webb, Gareon Conley, Doran Grant and Eli Apple

Kerry Coombs was one of Ohio State’s most beloved assistant coaches during the Urban Meyer era, and after two years away with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, he’s now officially back as a member of Ryan Day’s coaching staff.

Coombs, who was previously Ohio State’s cornerbacks coach from 2012 to 2017, will have increased responsibilities in his return, as he’s now a defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes and coaching both cornerbacks and safeties as Ohio State’s new secondary coach.

Because of how successful Coombs was in his previous stint with the Buckeyes in recruiting top cornerbacks to Ohio State and then developing them into top-flight collegiate defensive backs and future NFL draft picks, he’s viewed by many as an ideal replacement for Jeff Hafley.

Although it didn’t work out too well the last time Ohio State hired a retread cornerbacks coach – Taver Johnson’s second stint with the Buckeyes lasted just one year – Coombs built a much stronger resume than Johnson in his first stint with Ohio State. And now, like Hafley, Coombs brings experience as an NFL secondary coach to Columbus, fresh off helping the Tennessee Titans make a run to the AFC Championship Game.

There are still plenty of questions to be answered regarding Coombs’ return to Columbus, like how his coaching style will mesh with fellow co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and Ohio State’s current defensive scheme, but there’s good reason to be excited about what he brings back to the Buckeyes because of what he already accomplished in his first six years as an Ohio State assistant coach.

As we look ahead to what Coombs will bring to the Buckeyes in his return to Ohio State, we start by taking a look back at what he achieved in the past.

Five First-Round Draft Picks in Six Years

Coombs’ claim to fame in his first stint at Ohio State was the consistency with which he produced elite cornerbacks who captured attention from NFL scouts.

Over the course of his previous tenure with the Buckeyes, five cornerbacks who were developed by Coombs went on to be first-round draft picks: Bradley Roby (31st overall, 2014), Eli Apple (10th, 2016), Marshon Lattimore (11th, 2017), Gareon Conley (24th, 2017) and Denzel Ward (4th, 2018).

With the exception of Travis Howard, whom he coached only in his first year at Ohio State, every other starting cornerback from Coombs’ previous six years went on to be selected in the NFL draft (assuming Damon Arnette will be selected in the 2020 NFL draft, which he’s fully expected to be). Doran Grant was a fourth-round pick in 2015, and Kendall Sheffield – who played regularly in Coombs’ three-cornerback rotation in 2017 before starting for Taver Johnson’s unit in 2018 – was a fourth-round pick in 2019.

Many of those players achieved significant accolades during their Ohio State careers, too. Roby was a two-time All-Big Ten selection and a first-team All-American in 2012, when Howard also earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. Ward was a consensus first-team All-American in 2017. Grant earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2014 and Lattimore was a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2016.

Denzel Ward
Denzel Ward became a first-team All-American and a top-five NFL draft pick with Kerry Coombs' tutelage at Ohio State.

Recruiting the Nation’s Best

The above statistics give Coombs an easy recruiting pitch, as those along with the two seasons he just spent with the Titans prove that he knows what it takes to develop talented cornerbacks into successful NFL players. Roby, Apple, Lattimore, Conley and Ward have all gone on to be starting cornerbacks in the NFL – Lattimore and Ward have been particularly successful – and he’ll certainly be bringing that up on the trail as he works to convince some of the top defensive backs from across the country to become Buckeyes.

It’s not just a hypothetical to say that Coombs should have a good recruiting pitch, though, as he’s already proven he can recruit at an elite level. In his previous stint with the Buckeyes, they repeatedly landed some of the nation’s top-ranked cornerback prospects including Apple (No. 7 CB in 2013), Cam Burrows (No. 8 CB in 2013), Damon Webb (No. 5 CB in 2014), Lattimore (No. 6 CB in 2014), Jeff Okudah (No. 1 CB in 2017) and Shaun Wade (No. 2 CB in 2017). 

He recruited most of the upperclassman defensive backs who will now be among the leaders of his secondary in 2020, including Wade, Amir Riep, Marcus Williamson, Sevyn Banks, Tyreke Johnson and Marcus Hooker.

With longstanding ties in Cincinnati dating back to his time as a high school coach in Southwest Ohio, Coombs also helped the Buckeyes land some of the top prospects from that area during his previous years in Columbus. Among others, Coombs served as the primary recruiter for Justin Hilliard – who was a five-star prospect out of St. Xavier High School – and Sam Hubbard.

Strong Passing Defenses

Ohio State won 73 of its 81 games during Coombs’ six years on the Buckeyes’ staff, and the play of the passing defenses led by Coombs’ cornerbacks was one reason why.

The Buckeyes’ first couple defenses with Coombs on staff weren’t great, as they ranked 78th in passing yards allowed per game in 2012 (243.5) and 112th in 2013 (268.0), but from 2014-17, Ohio State ranked in the top 12 nationally in yards per passing attempt allowed in each of Coombs’ last four seasons with the team.

As Coombs had more time to recruit and develop defensive backs, Ohio State’s secondaries progressively got better, particularly in 2016 – when he had a cornerback rotation of Lattimore, Conley and Ward, paired by Malik Hooker at safety – when the Buckeyes allowed less than 5.6 yards per passing attempt to lead the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Coombs was only responsible for one part of the defense’s success for most of his previous stint at Ohio State (he was an assistant defensive coordinator in 2017), so a good amount of the credit for the Buckeyes’ defensive success in those years has to go to former coordinators Chris Ash, Luke Fickell and Greg Schiano.

Now, though, Coombs will be responsible with translating his previous success as a position coach at Ohio State (and as a secondary coach in the NFL) into leading the entire back end of the Buckeyes’ defense and picking up where Hafley and the returning assistant coaches left off last season, when the Buckeyes led the nation in passing yards allowed per game (156) and per attempt (5.56).

A Ball of Energy

Perhaps more than anything else, Coombs was a fan favorite during his first six years at Ohio State because of his palpable energy that could be seen on the sidelines during games and really, just about every time he made an appearance anywhere.

Coombs has never been one to hide his excitement, as can be seen in this clip from after the Buckeyes’ national championship game win to wrap up his third season in Columbus:

He’s never been shy about speaking up when he feels like he needs to send a message to his players, either, though those messages often come with a twist of humor, like we saw in this spring practice clip from 2013: 

Coombs has always worn his emotions on his sleeve, and there was perhaps no greater example of that than his tearful singing of Carmen Ohio (while his forehead bled after headbutting one of his players’ helmets) after the Buckeyes’ 2017 win over Michigan: 

Given that Coombs brought that same energy and personality with him to Tennessee, it would be a surprise to see anything less than the extreme enthusiasm Ohio State fans came to know and love from Coombs in his second stint with the team.

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