INDIANAPOLIS – The numbers told the same story as the film. Ohio State’s defense, quite clearly, wasn’t good enough last season. And more specifically, the pass defense too often didn’t rise to the occasion, with the Buckeyes giving up more than 300 yards a game through the air.
Mac Jones and Michael Penix Jr. lit them up down the field. Alabama did anything it wanted through the air. DeVonta Smith, Jahan Dotson, Ty Fryfogle and Cornell Powell made themselves some future NFL earnings by torching Ohio State down the field.
Yes, it was bad. And yes, Ohio State’s players have heard plenty about it.
“We all have a chip on our shoulder,” Zach Harrison said on Friday at Big Ten Media Days. “We've been told we suck the whole year, and nobody wants to hear that.”
Thayer Munford laughed when told of Harrison’s comment.
“Man, what? I don't know about that,” he said.
“I'm kind of tired about that as well, and I kind of agree with him as well,” Munford said, continuing. “Also, at the same time, we know what we need to do.”
Fixing the defense has been No. 1 or No. 2 on Ohio State’s to-do list ever since the Crimson Tide dropped 52 points and 621 yards on the Buckeyes in the national championship game, depending on where you slot the quarterback competition. Quite simply, it wasn’t a defense constructed to win it all. Opponents generally didn’t get much done on the ground but moved the ball far too efficiently through the air for comfort.
Day, back in January, had an opportunity to make a major change, if he so chose.
Greg Mattison, the team’s defensive coordinator the past two years, retired following the conclusion of the season. If Day wanted to have the defense go in a different direction, or if he felt as though the coaches would have benefited from a new voice, he wouldn’t have had any problem finding coordinator candidates. Instead, he chose to make Parker Fleming a full-time coach, giving him the special teams responsibility. The decision was a de facto promotion for Kerry Coombs, the high-energy secondary maestro who had been hired prior to the 2020 season as a first-time defensive coordinator, and is now the sole defensive coordinator on Ohio State's coaching staff.
In turn, it becomes an all-important prove-it campaign both for Coombs as a coordinator and for Day as an evaluator of his coaching staff. So far, the head coach says he’s pleased with what he has seen in the Cincinnati native.
“I think that he really has embraced the role of defensive coordinator, and it fits him really, really well, and he's obviously going to have his hand in every single defensive secondary meeting,” Day said. “I'm really pleased with where we're at. We'll see. We've got to go put it on the field, and there'll be growing pains along the way. We still have some young guys in different positions. But again, I'm excited to see where this thing heads as we go into the first game.”
He added: “I'm really pleased with where that's at right now. I think we have the secondary surrounded, and I think Kerry really likes the role now of being the coordinator. He's very relational and very motivation-based and high-energy. I'm excited to see these guys play this year. Really, I am. I think that the depth we've created in the back end is strong, and I'm pleased right now with where they're at. Now, they've got to go out and play and do it. But we'll see.”
Day expressing happiness with Coombs’ performance is expected. He made the call to both retain and effectively promote him.
What’s more important is that he expressed more confidence in the pass defense than at any point earlier in the offseason.
“It's three things. It's either coaching, it's personnel, or it's scheme, and identifying what the issues where. Looking at it, I kind of attributed a little bit to all three, and I think that we've addressed all three of those areas,” Day said. “Now when you say, what's your confidence going into the season, it's much higher than it was at this time last year. But now they've got to go do it. Now they've got to go put it on the field. Not every day's going to be perfect, but I think we're much, much better than we were, certainly leaving last season.”
Up front, it’s easy to envision a better pass rush. Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith are breakout candidates complemented by veterans Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Tyler Friday and tantalizing freshmen Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau. Haskell Garrett and Taron Vincent will be coming up the middle, too.
A turned-over linebacker corps and secondary that lacks any proven stars are where most of the defensive questions rest. But Day expressed confidence in those areas on Saturday.
In order to win it all, the Buckeyes as a whole simply have to be better on defense, and that’s not a secret to anybody within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“This whole offseason we've been lifting hard, training hard, we've been talking to each other, been in the meeting rooms together,” Harrison said. “We're just ready to show everybody that the Silver Bullets can play defense. We can play ball – all of us, all 11 of us, top to bottom.”