Overhauling Ohio State’s Defensive Coaching Staff A Tough But Necessary Decision for Ryan Day

By Dan Hope on January 31, 2022 at 7:35 pm
Ryan Day

After two years of substandard performance for Ohio State’s defense, Ryan Day had to make a tough decision.

He could have taken a similar tact as he did in 2021, when the only changes to Ohio State’s full-time coaching staff were promoting Parker Fleming to special teams coordinator and shifting around some responsibilities for the defensive coaches following Greg Mattison’s retirement. Even after his December hire of former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to be Ohio State’s new defensive coordinator, Day could have retained most of the defensive coaching staff around Knowles by tweaking some of their roles.

But Day decided that one change to the coaching staff wasn’t enough. So he retained just one full-time defensive coach from last season – defensive line coach Larry Johnson – while bringing in Knowles, secondary/cornerbacks coach Tim Walton and safeties coach Perry Eliano to replace former defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, secondary coach Matt Barnes and linebackers coach Al Washington.

After Ohio State’s defense finished 59th nationally in yards allowed per game for the second year in a row, Day realized that more drastic changes needed to be made.

“I certainly considered (just making small tweaks) and considered a lot of things and thought long and hard on it and it weighed heavy on me, but I felt like a fresh start was the right thing to do,” Day said Monday in his first press conference of the offseason. “I felt like that’s kind of what we had been doing the last couple of years is tweaking it and bringing a guy in and moving a piece over here, and I really wanted to start fresh and have a system in place, so that when something goes wrong, there’s an answer to the system and everybody believes in the system and I just felt like at the time, that was the right thing to do.”

This isn’t the first time Day has overhauled Ohio State’s defensive coaching staff, as he also replaced everyone but Johnson when he became the Buckeyes’ head coach in 2019. At that time, Day brought in Jeff Hafley and Mattison as co-defensive coordinators along with Washington and Barnes, and that group had tremendous success, leading a defense that ranked No. 1 in the nation in yards allowed per game in 2019.

When Hafley left after the 2019 season to become the head coach at Boston College, however, Day expressed a desire to continue running a similar structure of defense even after Coombs replaced Hafley as defensive coordinator. That never worked out as desired, ultimately leading to Coombs’ demotion from play-calling duties after the first two games of the 2021 season prior to his departure from the staff altogether after the season.

This time around, Day is making it clear Knowles will have the autonomy to decide how the defense should operate. While Day expects the defense to continue to be based in a four-man front with Johnson staying aboard, he has repeatedly described Knowles as the “head coach of the defense” and says he trusts Knowles and the rest of the new defensive staff to make the necessary adjustments to set their players up for success.

“When it came to making this decision, we still wanted to start with that foundation,” Day said. “But at the end of the day, based on the personnel that we have – we went through all the personnel today, every single guy on the team – the goal is to put our guys in position to be successful. And finding a way to do that, that’s the key to college coaching. Just like for us on offense, do you want to be in 10, 11, 12, 13 personnel? Do you want to figure out how to optimize your guys? And that’s really what the goal is gonna be on defense.

“And so I think that’ll look similar to maybe it did at Oklahoma State. I don’t know. That’s gonna be up to the defensive staff to determine. But there will probably be some other things too, some different things that guys do well that are on our team right now and trying to figure out what those skill sets are and maximize them to put them in an environment to be successful and that’s really what it comes down to. So that journey has started now.”

Knowles appreciates that Day is trusting him to turn the defense around, while he also understands he is the one who will be accountable if the Buckeyes don’t return to playing defense at a championship level.

“I don't think you could ask for a better situation. You're not walking into a program that’s struggled. You’re walking into Ohio State,” Knowles said. “So for me to be able to come in on a clean slate with, ‘Hey, this is what I do with this defense that I've established,’ it's great, because that the support is all there, everything's right there.

“To those that a lot has been given, a lot is expected, and I went into Oklahoma State, really believing that when we could get the defense to rise to the level and culture of the offense and the things that they did off the field in the weight room, that we'd be able to compete for a national championship. And at Oklahoma State, we were what, two feet short this year, right? But it took four years. It's not lost on me that I don't have four years here. This program is ready to win every single game right now. And we have to get the defense to that level. So what Coach Day expects of me is to have a system that's accountable, that I have to have answers, that the players have to understand why I'm teaching what I'm teaching.”

Day said there were seven candidates he considered in his search for a new defensive coordinator, but Knowles emerged at the top of the list because of Oklahoma State’s success this past season and because Day believes Knowles’ scheme will be a good fit for Ohio State’s personnel. And Day thanked Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and president Kristina Johnson for signing off on paying Knowles $1.9 million – the most Ohio State has ever paid an assistant coach – to make that happen.

“I thank Gene Smith for allowing me to go get the best,” Day said. “He never asked a question on it. He said just, ‘You go get whoever you think is the best defensive coordinator for Ohio State this year,’ and didn’t ask any questions in that area and allowed me to go do that. So really appreciate him, President Johnson and the (Board of Trustees) for allowing me to do that, because that’s not the case at most places.”

There will still be a few familiar faces from last year in defensive staff meetings, starting with Johnson and Fleming, who helps out with the defense in addition to coordinating the special teams. Former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads also remains on staff as a defensive analyst, and Knowles said Johnson and Rhoads have helped him get to know the defensive personnel he’s inheriting.

For the most part, though, the coaches who led Ohio State’s defense last year are no longer in Columbus, as Barnes is now the defensive coordinator at Memphis, Coombs is now the special teams coordinator and cornerbacks coach at Cincinnati and Washington is now the defensive line coach and defensive run game coordinator at Notre Dame.

While moving on from those coaches wasn’t an easy decision for Day to make, it was one he felt was necessary for Ohio State’s defense to get to where it’s supposed to be.

“We’re at a level of college football where the competition is extremely high,” Day said. “And so there’s an expectation that comes with that. I say it all the time, I have a great job but it’s a hard job, and that’s one of the hardest parts about it is going through and trying to make those difficult decisions. But at the end of the day, this is more than that. It’s about Ohio State football, and there’s a lot of people that are counting on this to be right.

“And so, you gotta do the best you can, you ask a lot of questions, you make sure you’re making the right decisions, but at the end of the day, you gotta trust your gut. Then you move forward. And I’ve had to do that. It’s not something I look forward to, but it’s something again that’ll happen. Just the way it goes. It’s certainly not the goal, but we have to be able to adapt and move on as things happen.”

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