As Ohio State’s defense looks to bounce back from its disappointing 2020 performance and get back to playing at a championship level in 2021, there will be a new assistant coach helping to lead that effort.
A spot on Ohio State’s defensive coaching staff officially opens up at the end of the month when Greg Mattison – the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator for the past two seasons – will retire from coaching.
Mattison’s replacement has not yet been selected, and as of Friday morning, it was unclear who Ohio State is targeting to take his place. Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Friday that he’ll consider a variety of options for the new hire.
Because Mattison was neither the primary defensive coordinator nor the primary linebackers coach, Ohio State has flexibility in hiring his replacement. While Day could hire another co-defensive coordinator to lead the game plan for the run defense and coach the Sam linebackers like Mattison did, he could also move some of the returning defensive assistant coaches into new roles if he believes a new assistant coach would help the Buckeyes more in a different area.
“I think we have a really good group of guys there right now who are versatile, so we’re going to look at all options,” Day said. “Is there somebody else out there that can take Greg’s spot in the same exact role that he did, or are we going to just move some things around and reassign some of the job descriptions? That’s all up on the table, and we’re working on that now, and looking at all different options.
“I’m not really set on ‘This is exactly what the role needs to be.’ Want to just put the best group together to give our guys on defense the best chance to be successful.”
While defensive coordinator and secondary coach Kerry Coombs, defensive line coach Larry Johnson, linebackers coach Al Washington and safeties coach Matt Barnes are all set to return in 2021, Ohio State has reason to consider changing things up.
The Buckeyes finished this past season ranked 43rd in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 25.8 points allowed per game, 59th with 401.6 yards allowed per game and 122nd with 304 passing yards allowed per game. Ohio State’s defense especially struggled in the national championship game against Alabama, in which the Crimson Tide scored 52 points on 621 yards, and Day acknowledged Friday that the defense’s performance in 2020 was not up to program standards.
“We didn’t play very good against Indiana, and there were times early in the season where it just didn’t look the way it should,” Day said. “And then it all kind of culminated at the end against Alabama.”
At the same time, that defense was good enough – particularly in the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern and the Sugar Bowl against Clemson – to get Ohio State to the national championship game. And the Buckeyes had to deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic all year long – they played just eight total games, and Day revealed Friday that the Buckeyes were only able to hold one padded practice before the national championship game – which shouldn’t be forgotten when evaluating the struggles they had on defense this past season.
“I thought we did a good job against Clemson. I thought our guys played good, we created turnovers, and they played really well there. I thought we played well for the most part against Northwestern,” Day said. “We had some interruptions just in terms of practice and things like that. We only practiced one day in pads leading up to the national championship game. Not that that’s an excuse, it’s just I think that when you look at the number of games we had, you find out a little bit more about your defense, you can experiment with some things a little bit more when you have five or six more games than we did.
“I think it was a culmination of things there at the end. But certainly things that we gotta look at as we go into the season and all big-time discussions that we have to get right going into next fall.”
Given the struggles Ohio State had defending the pass in 2020, those discussions will include conversation about whether the Buckeyes should stick with the Cover 3, Pete Carroll-inspired defense they’ve used for the past two seasons, or whether they should revamp their scheme this offseason. And that’s one factor Day needs to consider when hiring Mattison’s replacement and determining how the defensive staff should be structured for 2021.
“Anybody who has a background in four-down, single-high defense certainly would fit quicker,” Day said. “But then also bringing in somebody that has a little bit more of a diverse background can give us different perspective, and areas where we can maximize who we have. And I think that’s what’s important, because we try to do that all the time on offense, and I think that that’s going to be important to what we do on defense, is based on who we have that year, what gives us the best chance to be successful?
“If it’s to continue to be in a single-high, Cover 3? Let’s do it. But if it’s not, what are the things? So do we want to have some continuity there and keep that going, or do we want to bring in somebody with a different perspective? All the discussions that are being had now.”