Matt Barnes Says Ohio State’s Defensive Play Calling Has Been “Group Effort” Following Staff Shakeup

By Dan Hope on September 29, 2021 at 12:35 pm
Matt Barnes

For the second time in four years, Matt Barnes is calling a Big Ten team’s defensive plays even though he isn’t its defensive coordinator.

During his final year at Maryland in 2018, Barnes took over defensive play calling responsibilities from Andy Buh, who was the Terrapins’ defensive coordinator that year. And since Ohio State’s third game of the season, Barnes has been the lead defensive play caller for the Buckeyes, taking that responsibility from Kerry Coombs following the Buckeyes’ loss in their second game of the year against Oregon.

While he’s still never been a full-time defensive coordinator, he says the experience he gained at Maryland three years ago has helped him as he’s taken on increased responsibilities in Columbus this year.

“I think it’s like anything else. The best way to get better at playing football is to play football. The best way to improve calling defense is to call defense,” Barnes said Tuesday. “So hopefully, we’ll continue to see improvement as we go, but I learned some valuable lessons that year in 2018 and learning with every play right now.”

Ohio State’s defense has been better since Barnes took over play-calling responsibilities, allowing just 27 total points against Tulsa and Akron after allowing 31 points to Minnesota and 35 points to Oregon – though it’s uncertain whether the defense has actually gotten better, or whether it’s simply benefitted from playing weaker competition. The competition will start to get tougher as they resume Big Ten play with Rutgers this week followed next week by Maryland, which ranks second only to Ohio State in Big Ten total offense.

“I think we’ve made some strides, and I think this week will be another big test for us,” Ryan Day said Tuesday. “I think you just overall see us changing some things up, playing with great aggression. But again, we’ll know that more here in a couple weeks and figure out where we’re at. We got a big challenge this week, and as it continues to grow, I don’t think the answer’s here yet. We gotta see where we’re at in this thing. It’s week to week. We’ll be on the brink week to week. It’s not just you do a good job one week and then move on.”

Barnes said the Buckeyes have made some changes to how they’re operating defensively, which includes Barnes coaching from the sideline and calling plays with Coombs coaching from the press box instead of the field. That’s a change for both, as Coombs was previously calling plays from the field while Barnes was coaching from the booth, but Barnes felt it was important for him to be on the field as the defensive play caller.

“You get a little bit more of a feel for the game, particularly tempo,” Barnes said. “Sometimes you kind of get lost in the box, you’re up there, it’s heated or it’s air conditioned and you’re kind of just watching, but when you’re down on the field, you feel the urgency of the situation. And then probably the biggest thing for me is on the field, you can really be hands-on with how you adjust the game from series to series.”

Coordinators don’t always choose to coach from the sidelines. Jeff Hafley coordinated the defense from the press box in 2019, when Ohio State led the country in total defense. Barnes said the defensive coaches feel like they have “the right pieces in the right places” now, though, and he says Coombs – the only full-time defensive assistant coach who’s stationed in the press box during games now – has provided value in his new role.

“Even though we’ve moved some things around with our gameday operation, our information from the press box has been extraordinary,” Barnes said. “We’ve really seen everything that we needed to see and been able to adjust it pretty well.”

While Barnes is now calling the shots defensively, he says he isn’t making any unilateral decisions. He says all of the defensive assistant coaches have input on the game plan and the plays that are called within games.

“It’s really been a group effort,” Barnes said. “Particularly game day. Just sorting through adjustments and we’re all in the meetings together throughout the week and kind of putting a call sheet together of what we like in certain situations. So in a lot of ways the game calls itself, and then it’s a group effort during the game on the sideline and on the headsets to get things adjusted and see what calls we like.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be around a lot of great football coaches and there are a ton of great football coaches in our defensive staff room right now. And I’ve said it before, I think one of my better qualities is I’m a pretty low-ego guy. So when someone has a good idea, I say ’Yeah, that’s a good idea, why don’t we do that?’ When someone has a great call in a critical situation in a game, I’m like, ‘Yeah, all right, let’s call that, that’s a heck of an idea.’ So I’ve been very fortunate over the last decade or so to be around some very, very intelligent and skilled football coaches, and I stole everything that I could steal from them, and I’m still around a whole bunch of really good football coaches and they have great ideas and I say, ‘Yeah, let’s do that.’”

Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson said last week that he has been more involved in the game plan, too, since Day decided to change up the defensive coaching staff structure.

“Just helping put the game plan together, just more input in the run game, making sure that we’re solid in the run game and just really just another voice in the room,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a great coaching staff, and Coach made a change and asked me to be more involved in the daily operation of our defense and that’s basically what I’m doing. Matt’s done a great job and the whole staff.”

The rest of the season could be viewed as Barnes’ audition to prove he deserves to be a full-time defensive coordinator, whether at Ohio State or elsewhere. But he says he doesn’t look at it that way. Barnes says his full focus is on doing whatever he can to help the Buckeyes’ defense succeed this season, and he believes the rest of the defensive coaches feel the same way.

“We’re all pulling in the same direction,” Barnes said. “We’re all in this thing together. And I’m gonna help in every way that I can, but at the end of the day, we will succeed because we do it together.

“We are arm in arm as a defensive staff and as a coaching staff and at the end of the day, we are in a relentless pursuit of how to get it right and how to improve.”

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