Ohio State’s only new defensive assistant coach will be calling the shots for the Buckeyes’ defense next season.
Ryan Day made that clear on Wednesday, when he said Kerry Coombs will have the “final say” as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator while Greg Mattison’s title will remain co-defensive coordinator.
That’s not to say that Coombs will be looking to make major changes, though.
Ohio State finished the 2019 season ranked No. 1 nationally in yards allowed per game (259.7) and yards allowed per play (4.13) and fourth in points allowed per game (13.7), so Coombs recognizes that the Buckeyes’ returning defensive assistants – Mattison, defensive line coach Larry Johnson, linebackers coach Al Washington and assistant secondary coach Matt Barnes – knew what they were doing.
“I watched the whole season and how well they played, how hard they played. There’s no reason for us to make massive changes to what they’re doing defensively,” Coombs said Wednesday. “Greg, Larry, Al, Matt, those guys have done a phenomenal job. So for me, right now, I’m in the meeting room with them in the afternoons, learning what they did. Trying to make sure that I’m adapting their terminology and the playbook. Going to make additions to it, going to make some alterations to it but at the same time, those guys are phenomenal coaches.”
Since Jeff Hafley left Ohio State’s coaching staff to become the head coach at Boston College, Day has been adamant that the Buckeyes will continue to have the same base defensive philosophy that they did last season, featuring four down defensive linemen, one deep safety and a mix of Cover 1 (man) and Cover 3 (zone).
That will be a change from Coombs’ previous tenure at Ohio State, during which the Buckeyes played almost exclusively press man-to-man coverage, but a change he says he’s ready to embrace.
“The great thing about spending two years with the Titans, we played every coverage there is. We're the only team in the NFL that played every coverage there is. We played three-deep, we played two-deep, we played quarters, we played press-man, we played zero man-to-man, we played two-deep, five-man, we played it all,” Coombs said. “And I love what they're doing here. We're not going to change a lot of that.
“Now are we going to play press man-to-man? You bet your bottom dollar, we're going to play press man-to-man, because we're going to be really good at it,” Coombs added. “There will be some coverage additions to what we do. But our base is going to be single-high defense. That's what we're going to play.”
Like Hafley, who was the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach last season, Coombs will take responsibility for coaching both Ohio State’s cornerbacks and safeties. Coombs only coached cornerbacks during his first stint with the Buckeyes, but he coached both cornerbacks and safeties for the past two years with the Tennessee Titans, so he says he’s “very comfortable” with taking on that responsibility.
“That’s really the best way to do it,” Coombs said of having all the defensive backs together in the same meeting room, “because all the pieces are communicating together.”
Coombs will share the responsibility of coaching the cornerbacks and safeties with Barnes, just as Hafley did last season.
“I’ve had some great conversations with him in the last three days about the coverage that they played last year, how I see it going forward, and I think he is a really, really sharp coach. So I’m looking forward to working with him,” Coombs said of Barnes. “There’s gonna be times when he’s gonna take safeties and I’m gonna take corners. Might be times when I take safeties and he takes corners. Might be times when I take the right side and he takes the left side.”
“I watched the whole season and how well they played, how hard they played. There’s no reason for us to make massive changes to what they’re doing defensively.”– Kerry Coombs on Ohio State's defense
Unlike Hafley, who coached from the press box alongside Barnes last season, Coombs is planning to coach from the field. That could mean Mattison or someone else moving up to the press box, but that decision has not been made yet.
Another thing that Coombs plans to do differently from Hafley, who relied heavily on starters Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette, Shaun Wade and Jordan Fuller in the secondary last season, is rotate defensive backs, just as he did in his previous tenure with the Buckeyes. How much he does that could ultimately be dependent on how many returning defensive backs other than Wade show him they are ready to play this season, but Coombs is confident he will have the manpower on the back end to play more than just his four starters.
“I absolutely anticipate doing it. I think you gotta get your best players on the field, but I also think you gotta keep fast, fresh players on the field. And I think that for the sake of continuity and a program over the course of years, guys need to play,” Coombs said. “So I have every expectation of playing multiple players in the back end. They gotta be good enough to play. The performance of the unit cannot go down when they go on the field. So you can’t say, ‘We’re just playing them to play them.’ They’ve gotta be capable, confident players. But I have every expectation of playing a lot of guys in the back end.”
Even though Ohio State plans to have the same base defense in 2020 as it did in 2019, the Buckeyes will certainly add some new looks and plays to the mix. Given that Coombs has been a part of successful defenses at Ohio State before and that he spent the past two seasons expanding his schematic knowledge in the NFL, Day expects Coombs to bring in some new ideas to mix in with what the Buckeyes did last season.
“One of the things a couple years ago when I had an opportunity to come here was to look at what we were doing on offense. And I had a playbook this big coming from the NFL, too,” said Day, who was the quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers before he joined Ohio State’s coaching staff in 2017. “One of the things we added was the crossing package. And that was the right fit at the right time. And I said that to Kerry, whatever those things are or whatever in Greg's past or whatever in Larry's past or with Al or with Matt Barnes, whatever those right things are for who we have, that's the key to coaching. It's not just coming in and running blitzes or running coverages because you think that that's a great coverage or a great blitz, it's what fits our personnel and what puts our guys in the best position to be successful.”
What no one expects to change in 2020, though, is the collaborative environment among Ohio State’s coaching staff. So while Coombs will have the authority of calling plays for the Buckeyes’ defense, with a bigger title than anyone on the defensive coaching staff had last season, all the defensive coaches will still have input in the game plan and any decisions Ohio State makes about how to run its defense.
“I think defensive football, offensive football is best played when everybody’s got a voice and everybody has input. And that’s the way we’re gonna operate,” Coombs said. “That’s how we’re gonna operate on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, gameday. ‘What do you guys think? What do you like here?’ Those kind of things, and that’s how I anticipate the entire process going for the entire time that I’m here.”