For the past 30 years, co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has always coached from field level in his various roles as an assistant coach. That will change on Saturday.
Because new defensive coordinator and secondary coach Kerry Coombs will be coaching from the field unlike his predecessor Jeff Hafley last year, Mattison will be up in the press box to oversee the field from above. He'll let Coombs join defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Al Washington at field level.
For Mattison, who went on to become defensive coordinator and defensive line coach at Michigan, Notre Dame and Florida and also spent three years coaching with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens before returning to Michigan and then going south to Ohio State, this will be the first time he’s coached from the booth since he was Texas A&M’s defensive line coach in 1990.
He’s on board with that change because he believes it will be for the best for Ohio State’s defense.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Mattison said Wednesday. “But I’ve been there during the practices that we’ve had, it’s been great. So it’ll work really well with our staff.
“The interaction with the players (on the field) and that part of it has always been something I’ve really, really enjoyed, but you know what happens, when we have a whole staff of guys that do that, sometimes too many doing that isn’t good. And I just felt the best thing for us was for me to be in the box. I think I can help this defense more being there, and we’ve got plenty of guys down there that are enthusiastic.”
While it was never exactly specified whether Mattison or Hafley had the final say on defensive play calls last season, it has been going into this season, as Coombs does have the full title of defensive coordinator and has been designated as the lead defensive play-caller. But Mattison, who’s still tied for the third-highest-paid assistant coach on staff with a $1.133 million salary, didn’t express any discontent with his role on Wednesday, the first time he’s met with the media in 2020.
“What happens when you have a great coaching staff, I think everybody has an input,” Mattison said. “All of us working together has been great. And the thing that I think has made this group special, there are no egos. It doesn’t matter who runs what, who does what, the bottom line is let’s play great defense. And if we play great defense, Ohio State will have another great year. That’s always been my belief, and I know that’s the way everybody else is on this staff.”
Except for the move upstairs on game days, Mattison’s role hasn’t changed greatly from what it was last year. Because Coombs specializes in coaching defensive backs like Hafley, Ohio State’s new defensive coordinator spends most of his time working with the back end of the defense and the passing game, while Mattison – who also serves as the position coach for the Sam linebackers – works primarily with the front seven and the run defense.
Just as they did last season, all of Ohio State’s defensive assistant coaches have continued to preach collaboration going into this season, as all five of them – Coombs, Mattison, Johnson, Washington and safeties coach/special teams coordinator Matt Barnes – work in concert to try to build the best possible Buckeye defense for 2020.
“The front seven, the run game is what I’ve always been a lot stronger at than the back end, and Kerry has always been a back end guy,” Mattison said. “We’ve got enough guys to be able to make sure both work together. And that only works when everybody knows that this is for the team, this is for the players, this is not about you as a coach.”
Mattison says Coombs, who previously coached at Ohio State from 2012-17 but had not previously worked with Mattison, has brought some new ideas to the defensive coaching staff and of course, his famous energy. Fundamentally, though, Mattison says Ohio State’s defense has not changed structurally from last year, when the Buckeyes ran a base defense with four down linemen, three linebackers, three cornerbacks and one safety that included a mix of man and zone coverages.
“He brings us some different ways of playing defense, but we still have our defense,” Mattison said. “We still do what Ohio State does. And I think the fact that all of our staff work so closely together and we’re all in this thing together, I think it’s been a really good transition.”
Marcus Williamson, who’s expected to start at the slot cornerback position that became a full-time starting role when Ohio State revamped its defense last year, echoed what Mattison said about the defensive scheme not changing much even though the Buckeyes have a new defensive coordinator.
“It’s the same defense as we’ve had in the previous year. I can’t really think of too much that’s different. Same calls we’ve been having, same techniques, same coaching points,” Williamson said Wednesday. “It’s just Coach Coombs now calling the plays.”
And while Williamson is primarily coached by Coombs as a cornerback, he said he benefits, too, from the collaborative approach that all the assistant coaches take to ensuring that everyone on the defense is on the same page.
“Just speaking to Coach Mattison about some of the different personnel that we may face in regards to tight ends and some more linebacker roles that sometimes you have to take on in the slot, he’s been a great help along with Coach Washington and even Coach Johnson as well,” Williamson said. “Just being able to take all those coaching points that they have, and being able to apply it to the (cornerback) position has been great. So I can’t say enough about the job they’ve done.”