The first time Kerry Coombs walked into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and saw Marcus Williamson, he told the senior cornerback that he’s “the same player that I recruited.” Williamson might as well have said something similar to Coombs, Ohio State’s new defensive coordinator in his second stint in Columbus.
“If you know anything about coach Coombs, you know he always brings the energy,” Williamson said.
That certainly hasn’t changed.
Both of their paths, however, took turns neither of them could have foreseen years ago when Coombs began Williamson as a 15-year-old out of Westerville or when he inked the one-time four-star recruit to a National Letter of Intent in the 2017 recruiting cycle.
Coombs, a year after Williamson enrolled, left Ohio State to coach defensive backs for the Tennessee Titans in what was a surprising move at the time. He remained in the NFL until earlier this year when Ryan Day brought him back as a defensive coordinator with a seven-figure salary.
Williamson, meanwhile, never managed to get his Ohio State career much off the ground. He played 77 defensive snaps as a freshman, 42 defensive snaps during an injury-shortened sophomore season and 86 defensive snaps as a junior while sitting behind three first-round cornerbacks. Recently, he's become the forgotten man at cornerback as the Buckeyes continued to churn out first-rounders in the back of their defense.
This fall, as their paths unexpectedly cross once again in Columbus, the senior cornerback and defensive coordinator need each other more than ever before.
Coombs seeks a slot cornerback in a depleted Buckeyes secondary, and Williamson wants his long-awaited opportunity. Their desires align.
“I'm so ready to help this team and help us win. And I think that's really the driving force behind it now that I've stepped into a leadership role. I just love this team so much, and I just want to do whatever I can to win, man.”– Marcus Williamson
Based on both of their comments on Tuesday evening, it appears that Coombs will give Williamson the first opportunity to start in the slot this fall. The two others mainly repping at slot, Williamson said, are redshirt freshman Ronnie Hickman and freshman Cameron Martinez.
“It's a matchup business, right?” Coombs said. “If he's playing more in the slot than he is outside simply because more of the slots we'll play against will be similar size and stature players, slot corner is going to major in short-space quickness whereas the long corner on the outside is going to have probably a little bit more long speed and have some length at the line of scrimmage and press man-to-man against taller wide receivers. That's been, to me, an easy transition for Marcus. I have a comfort level with that.”
Williamson, at 5-foot-10, is tied with Martinez as the shortest cornerback on Ohio State’s roster. In that sense, he’s the complete opposite of the tall, lanky cornerbacks Coombs openly admits that he prefers to have on his roster. Out of high school, Williamson didn’t physically look like the Shaun Wades (6-foot-1, 177 pounds), Jeff Okudahs (6-foot-1, 190 pounds), Kendall Sheffields (6-foot, 185 pounds) or Damon Arnettes (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) of the world.
But don’t get it twisted. Coombs recruited Williamson. He originally wanted him. He’s not simply inheriting the senior. Coombs has known Williamson’s skillset ever since he was an underclassman in high school and felt comfortable enough with his height to bring him into the fold years ago. He might not look like Coombs’ ideal outside cornerback, but that’s exactly why he has him inside right now.
Shaun Wade’s move to outside cornerback necessitated Coombs finding a replacement, and with Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown fending for the spot opposite Wade, it left an opening for Williamson in the slot.
“Personally, I think I've been in this program for a few years,” Williamson said. “I've had a lot of coaching, a lot of different coaches. I think I've been able to bring a lot of that football knowledge to the position along with my personal skillset. I'm excited to get started and get to work with coach Coombs and have a great season.”
For Williamson, it’s hard not to view this as the jump-start to his Ohio State career that he has long required.
When he spoke on Tuesday, he continually referenced how Coombs’ return has “brought that new sense of energy” and how he “brought a new life for the secondary” that lost all four starters. Personally, reuniting with Coombs especially matters to Williamson, whose career has been littered with coaching changes.
He got recruited by Coombs and spent his first year at Ohio State learning from him. Taver Johnson took over as cornerbacks coach his sophomore season but only lasted one year before a staff overhaul when Gene Smith hired Ryan Day. Jeff Hafley came in last year and left for Boston College after one season. As he enters his fourth season as a Buckeye, Williamson has experienced three coaching changes at his position. The latest, however, might be exactly what he needed.
“Now that coach Coombs is back, it's really rejuvenated me and kind of reminded me of why we come here,” Williamson said. “We come here to win championships and to get to the next level. And coach Coombs, he preaches that every day. We've had that relationship really since I was 15 when he started recruiting me. It was great to have him back. Every day, we walk in with a smile on our face ready to get to work.”
Coombs said Williamson had an “extraordinary offseason” and is “playing really well right now.”
Considering the lack of depth in the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback where Ohio State only has five players who aren’t freshmen, Coombs won't have an abundance of personnel decisions to make. He knows the guys he’ll have to rely on most – Wade, Williamson, Banks, Brown and Tyreke Johnson – and must get them prepared as best he can.
Though he admits his career this far “hasn't been ideal,” Williamson's turn has finally come as the likely startig slot cornerback.
“I'm so ready to help this team and help us win,” Williamson said. “And I think that's really the driving force behind it now that I've stepped into a leadership role. I just love this team so much, and I just want to do whatever I can to win, man. I'm ready for Week 1.
“We've done a lot of waiting. I've done a lot of waiting. I think we're ready as a team.”