Kerry Coombs’ Already Difficult Job Becomes Tougher If Ohio State Can’t Have Spring Practices

By Colin Hass-Hill on March 16, 2020 at 11:21 am
Kerry Coombs

Imagine Kerry Coombs right now, wherever he is, whatever he’s doing.

He’s probably seven coffees and 12 FaceTimes with recruits deep. No doubt wherever he is he’s making the most of the time he has. Just like the first go-around at Ohio State, he’s recently crushing the recruiting trail. The Jakailin Johnson commitment showed as much, and the momentum with other defensive back prospects – including cornerbacks Devonta Smith and Andre Turrentine – is also evident. 

But he’d strongly prefer to be doing something else right now: Coaching.

In an alternate, coronavirus-free world, Coombs would be readying himself to pick off where he left off with the Buckeyes, who left Columbus to go on spring break after their third practice of the spring on March 6. Instead, the fourth spring practice of 2020 – scheduled for Tuesday – won’t happen. 

Conferences across the country postponed spring practices as one of the latest measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. The Big Ten suspended spring camp until at least April 6, and athletic director Gene Smith said he was a proponent of canceling it altogether.

“If we continued behaviors, these people and the groupings that we were putting them in, it would only continue to provide the virus an opportunity to spread,” Gene Smith said on Friday. “And so, it’s just common sense to me that we needed to do something sooner rather than later.”

As each day passes, something new seems to get shut down – it was restaurants and bars on Sunday in Ohio – to prevent the spread of the disease. So unless something drastically changes, leading to a significantly lessened concern in the state about coronavirus, it would seem likely that Coombs and the rest of the team won’t go through any more spring practices.

We’re in unprecedented times, which sometimes require unprecedented measures. Maybe that means additional practices in fall camp to prepare for the season. Nobody could possibly know right now. The Big Ten and NCAA have to figure out what’s going on this spring before getting to those plans.

But as it stands, from an Ohio State football perspective, spring practices getting canceled would prevent the coaches from implementing certain things they usually do in the spring, truncating their schedules in August.

“I look at it like you have the 15 practices in the spring,” Ryan Day said a couple weeks ago. “And then when you start in August, on the first practice of preseason, that's just practice 16. It's just an extension of the offseason as opposed to, okay, what are we getting done here in the spring and what are we getting done in the summer. We don't really install day one of preseason. It's already been installed. Now it's time to pick off where we left off on practice 15.”

If the lost spring practices don’t get made up in July or August, those installation days would have to come when Day thought the coaches would be able to focus on something else.

Sure, that would affect many different aspects of the offense. Corey Dennis could benefit from spending time on the field with Justin Fields. Jack Miller and CJ Stroud need all the reps they can get. The freshman wide receivers have to practice to rise up the depth chart. The openings at left guard and right tackles require an on-field competition.

But more than anything else, a football-free spring might impact Coombs’ ability to prepare the other side of the ball as the first-year defensive coordinator.

Coombs already had a fairly lengthy to-do list.

  1. Make whatever changes to the defensive scheme he intends
  2. Evaluate the defensive backs currently on the roster
  3. Develop the relatively inexperienced cornerbacks and safeties to prepare them for starting roles
  4. Learn more about the personnel across the entire defense and how to best to put the pieces together
  5. Figure out how to maximize how he and the other defensive assistant coaches work together on the field
  6. Ingratiate himself to the team, and gain the trust of players whom he doesn’t know quite as well yet

He was supposed to begin making progress toward each of those goals this spring, but that won’t happen – at least, not in person. Now, he’ll likely have to wait months before he can work the defense on the field.

The latest hurdle makes his sneakily difficult job even tougher.

Just looking at the defensive backfield, Coombs already had a tall task ahead of him. No longer with Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller in the mix means he has to replace three high-level, multi-years starters who patrolled the secondary in arguably the nation’s most productive defense. 

Shaun Wade offers him a top-flight centerpiece as an outside cornerback, and Sevyn Banks, Cameron Brown, Josh Proctor, Marcus Hooker, Marcus Williamson and Tyreke Johnson each have potential to become high-level starters. But since none of them have been in that type of role before and most have only played meaningful snaps in a couple of games, spring camp was supposed to be a chance for them to get a ton of first-team reps.

“Don't worry about them,” Coombs said a month ago. “We're gonna be just fine.”

Always confident in his players, Coombs surely still feels that way about his cornerbacks and safeties. But for somebody who’s such an adept developer of defensive backs, missing the on-field time with them this spring has to be disappointing.

Beyond only the secondary, Coombs also needs to implement whatever changes in the defense as a whole that he sees fit.

“There'll be some things, some additions – no reason for me to tell the world what they're going to be – but there will be some coverage additions to what we do,” Coombs said. “But our base is going to be single-high defense. That's what we're going to play.”

Not needing to put in an entirely new defense – like Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison did a year ago – makes it easier. But without spring ball, he’ll have a lot on his plate when preseason camp opens in August.

No one needs to hit the panic button. It’s only March. This isn’t DEFCON 1 by any means.

But for an incoming coordinator who has to replace a bunch of starters from a defense – including a secondary – that many viewed as the country’s best, not having spring camp would make Coombs’ job more onerous.

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