Future of Ohio State’s Coaching Staff Looms As Major Question After Loss to Michigan

By Dan Hope on December 1, 2021 at 8:35 am
Matt Barnes

When Ohio State has suffered bad losses in recent years, coaching staff changes have often followed.

After the Buckeyes suffered a 31-0 loss to Clemson in the 2016 College Football Playoff, Urban Meyer overhauled his offensive coaching staff, bringing in Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson to replace Tim Beck and Ed Warinner as co-offensive coordinators.

While the Buckeyes’ 2018 loss to Purdue didn’t lead to immediate changes, it did as soon as the season was over, as Day – upon taking over for Meyer – opted to replace Ohio State’s entire defensive coaching staff with the exception of Larry Johnson.

Day already made a change to his defensive coaching staff following Ohio State’s first loss of the 2021 season against Oregon, after which he stripped playcalling responsibilities away from defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs and reassigned them to Matt Barnes.

Following last weekend’s loss to Michigan in the final game of the 2021 regular season, which will be regarded as one of the worst losses of the past decade if only because of who it came against, more coaching changes seem like an inevitability.

Bigger changes to Ohio State’s defensive coaching staff arguably should have come at the end of last season, when the Buckeyes struggled on defense all year – ranking 122nd nationally in pass defense – and suffered a 52-24 loss to Alabama in the national championship game. The retirement of co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison opened up an opportunity for Day to bring in a new defensive coordinator without even having to fire anyone, but instead, he made Coombs the Buckeyes’ sole defensive coordinator while promoting Barnes to secondary coach and Parker Fleming to special teams coordinator.

At the time, Day expressed a desire for continuity and didn’t want to make any rash decisions after a season that was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. He expressed belief that the quartet of Coombs, Barnes, Johnson and Al Washington would be able to get the defense back on track with a full offseason to work with their players and enhance their defensive scheme.

That didn’t work, which means Day has to consider making major changes to his defensive coaching staff now.

First and foremost, Day must determine who Ohio State’s defensive coordinator will be next season, and that probably won’t be someone who’s currently on the staff. While Barnes had his chance to audition for the defensive coordinator job – though he said he didn’t view it as one – over the last 10 games, giving up 42 points on six rushing touchdowns and 297 rushing yards against Michigan is reason enough for Day to look for someone new to run the defense.

“They just stayed on schedule the whole time and that was the recipe I’m sure they had to win the game, and we weren’t able to stop that, and that’s really very disappointing. Especially when you know they’re gonna do it. So gotta take a hard look and figure out why that was,” Day said after the loss to Michigan.

Ohio State will likely look to keep at least one of Barnes and Coombs on staff to coach the secondary, but whether there will be room for both of them – and whether they, particularly Coombs, will want to stick around if someone else is running the defense – is uncertain. Coombs said in October he is still confident in his ability to be a defensive coordinator and specifically referenced “the remainder of the season” when talking about his commitment to Ohio State.

Linebackers coach Al Washington could find himself on the hot seat after a shaky season for his position group in which the Buckeyes’ top linebacker ended up being a converted running back (Steele Chambers) who moved to linebacker during preseason camp. Ohio State’s linebacker depth was decimated by the end of the season by both injuries and the transfers of Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope, but it’s fair to question the development of his linebackers after three seasons on the job.

Even Johnson might not be a lock to return after an underwhelming season for his position group. While it’s still highly unlikely Johnson would be asked to leave, considering his regard as one of the greatest defensive line coaches in college football history, Lettermen Row’s Austin Ward reported Monday that Johnson, who will turn 70 next year, is weighing retirement – though Johnson has been on the recruiting trail visiting prospects this week.

One way or another, Day should be looking to bring in at least one new defensive assistant coach this offseason. There aren’t any clear-cut favorites to join the staff – while Notre Dame defensive coordinator and former Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman would be a popular addition, it’s been reported that he could replace Brian Kelly as Notre Dame’s new head coach or join Kelly at LSU – but Day needs to find someone from either the college or NFL ranks who can get the defense back to playing at a championship level after two down years.

Major changes to the offensive coaching staff are less likely – after all, Ohio State still leads the nation in both points and yards per game this season even after the loss to Michigan – but there’s still the possibility of changes on that side of the ball, too. While the Buckeyes certainly don’t need an overhaul on offense, they do need to evaluate why they struggled to run the ball in big games this season and whether they should bring someone else onto the staff to help fix that. According to Lettermen Row, there’s a growing possibility that Ohio State could part ways with offensive line coach Greg Studrawa.

Greg Studrawa
Greg Studrawa is among the Ohio State coaches who could potentially be on their way out after this season.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that coaches could choose to leave on their own volition, especially in a year where several of the biggest programs in the country are changing head coaches. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson is a potential candidate for head coaching jobs. Running backs coach Tony Alford has also been viewed as a possible head coaching candidate – especially if his alma mater Colorado State fires Steve Addazio, as some expect – though he made it clear on Tuesday he isn’t looking to leave Ohio State after The Athletic’s Pete Sampson reported Kelly attempted to hire Alford at LSU.

In an ideal world, Ohio State would probably prefer to get through its bowl game first before making any decisions about its coaching staff. In a world where a head coach is changing jobs while his team still has a chance to make the College Football Playoff (Kelly), Ohio State can’t afford to wait that long. While it’s uncertain when any additions to or departures from the coaching staff will be announced, it’s likely Ohio State will look to reach agreements with any new hires as quickly as possible. Anyone the Buckeyes want to hire will likely have other offers they’re considering, too, and it’s important for Ohio State to have a plan for its coaching staff it can share with recruits before the early signing period begins in two weeks.

That could make the next two weeks as important to the Buckeyes’ success in 2022 as any that will take place once the actual offseason begins.

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