One number can summarize Ohio State's defense in 2020: 6
In a season unlike any other, the Buckeyes had one of the more bi-polar units in the nation. The 2020 Silver Bullets were truly elite when it came to stopping the run last fall, finishing with the sixth-best run defense. But as good as they were at stuffing opposing ground game, they were the exact opposite at defending the pass, finishing with sixth-worst such performance among all FBS programs.
Now, with so much focus on how the back end of his defense must improve over the next eight months, Ryan Day will be forced to find answers without one of his most trusted advisors. After 49 years in the profession, co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is retiring at the age of 71, leaving Day to replace a leader on that side of the ball for the third straight year.
"His career speaks to itself," Day said of the former coordinator at Michigan, Notre Dame, Florida, and the Baltimore Ravens. "What he’s done and accomplished on the field but more importantly, it’s what he’s done off the field. The relationship and respect he has around the country as one of the best coaches, and the impact he’s had on so many people."
Though the primary play-caller of the OSU defense, Kerry Coombs, remains in place, Mattison is believed to have played a pivotal role in both the development of weekly game plans and of younger coaches like Al Washington (linebackers) and Matt Barnes (safeties and special teams). With this opening on his staff, Day faces a critical decision: whether to continue reliance on the single-high system he envisioned upon taking over as head coach in 2019 or to diversify following the mixed results of the past season.
"Anybody who has a background in four-down, single-high defense certainly would fit quicker," Day told reporters over Zoom on Friday when asked about who might replace Mattison. "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?"
Many within the fanbase will clamor to hire a beloved former player with connections to the program, while others will decry anyone without a proven track record of recruiting. Some within the media have already begun speculating on specific former colleagues Day worked with in the past, mimicking the hire of a then-unknown defensive backs coach named Jeff Hafley in January 2019.
But the Buckeyes' head coach has a number of options available, none of which are guaranteed to deliver success.
Let's take a closer look at how Day might proceed and the pros and cons of each approach:
Promote From Within
Larry Johnson Sr. might be the coach many would expect to take this role, but the veteran D-line coach is rumored to retire every offseason and already possesses the title of Associate Head Coach, serving Day's staff in a different manner. With Washington and Barnes, however, Day has a bullpen of up-and-coming coaches who are likely to be in contention for bigger jobs in the near future.
Washington was a candidate for the head coaching job at his alma mater, Boston College, that eventually went to Hafley one year ago. After turning around the careers of Malik Harrison and Pete Werner and at just 36 years of age with a resume that already includes stints working for Don Brown, Luke Fickell, Mattison, and Hafley, it's only a matter of time until the Columbus native gets a Power-5 coordinator job.
At 34, Barnes may be less attractive of a candidate than Washington is right now, but he undoubtedly has a bright future as well. Having worked hand-in-hand with Hafley in 2019, Barnes was responsible for grooming Jordan Fuller into an All-Big Ten free safety and knows the details of the system intimately.
Pros: Both Washington and Barnes have seen this single-high system operate at its peak potential, and provide continuity for both players, staff, and recruits. Additionally, it may keep attrition among the coaching staff low as the new co-coordinator likely wouldn't be leaving for bigger jobs anytime soon.
Cons: Neither has been a coordinator before, meaning they would be learning on the fly while trying to fix a pass defense in need of help.
Look to the Pete Carroll Coaching Tree
Day has made it no secret that he wished to install the same 3-deep system he saw from Carroll's Seahawks, which has been employed by many other teams over the past decade. While his relationship with Jeff Hafley certainly played a major role in that hire, Hafley's experience as the DB coach in San Francisco under coordinator Robert Saleh was critical.
Saleh, who was recently named head coach of the New York Jets, is one of the most successful assistants to base out of the single-high system made famous by his former boss in Seattle. Like the Buckeyes this past year, Carroll's secondaries have experienced down years following the departure of key talent, making many question just how sustainable such an approach can be.
But Saleh may be the exception to the rule, having dealt with a number of key injuries on his 49er defense this last season, including Nick Bosa and Richard Sherman, and still allowed the fourth-fewest yards-per-play in the NFL. Without a lockdown corner or a dominant solo pass rusher, the SF defense had to get creative and incorporate a number of change-ups like overload blitzes with man-match coverage that initially looked like basic Cover 1:
Drop warner to wall #3 and rush the DE vs NYG here. vs Seattle drop DE to wall 3. Nice adjustment by Saleh and overall such a great coach this season. pic.twitter.com/9Y153f5uxv— 49ers all22 analysis (@49ersAll22) January 9, 2021
Saleh will undoubtedly look to bring many of his assistants with him to NYC while 49er head coach Kyle Shanahan will try to retain them for continuity, but the appeal of a coordinator title at a blue-blood program like Ohio State may be appealing to a young NFL staffer.
If none of Saleh's current assistants is a fit, Day could expand his search to those on Carroll's staff, such as former Iowa linebacker Tom Donatell, who currently serves as the defensive quality control assistant in Seattle.
Pros: Familiarity with basic philosophy Day wants to maintain while possessing knowledge of alternatives if/when things don't go as planned.
Cons: Hiring someone with such a specific skill set may be easier said than done, especially when Saleh is building a similar staff at the NFL level.
Get a Different Perspective
As Alabama showed in the CFP championship, relying too heavily on one scheme isn't a recipe for success, and bringing in an alternate point of view may be exactly what Day's defensive staff needs. There are endless paths to explore, should Day choose to open this door.
But if Day is looking for novel ways to shore up his pass defense, he might as well start with the nation's best. While the top ten units are made up largely of service academies and run-heavy programs from the MAC and Sun Belt, the team that proved stingiest at allowing yards through the air was in the Big 12 of all places.
West Virginia's defense wasn't exactly set up for success following the dismissal of coordinator Vic Koenning in late July. With no time to find a qualified replacement, head coach Neal Brown split coordinator duties between defensive line coach Jordan Lesley and cornerbacks coach Jahmile Addae, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
The Mountaineers led the nation pass yards allowed and were fourth nationally in total defense despite their unorthodox play-calling structure. Although Lesley and Addae supposedly cut the playbook by as much as 30%, there was still plenty of variety on display.
Basing out of a two-high structure, the WVU defense would often employ split the field and play different coverages on each side. That complexity often created confusion for opposing QBs, baiting them into contested throws.
But they didn't just out-scheme opponents, they played with great effort and technique - a credit to the coaches who remained on staff. Even when they dropped into a simple Cover 3 from their two-high structure, opponents couldn't find much open downfield.
Addae fits the mold of a young up-and-comer much like Hafley was two years ago. But the 36-year-old was a two-time captain as a player at WVU, and convincing him to leave his alma mater won't be easy.
Another route Day could explore might be to bring an Ohioan home.
Until a few years ago, Jon Heacock was best known for his connection to Jim Tressel. The Beloit native spent much of the 1990s as the defensive coordinator at Youngstown State before eventually taking over as head coach following Tressel's move to Columbus in 2001.
Though he spent nearly a decade in charge of the Penguin program, accumulating a 60-44 record, he was best known as the younger brother of Jim, Ohio State's longtime defensive coordinator under Tressel. After stops at Kent State and Purdue, Jon settled in as Matt Campbell's DC in Toledo before eventually following him to Iowa State in 2016.
There, Heacock made a national name for himself by not only turning around a perennial doormat but by inventing a new defense on the fly. Despite coaching a traditional 4-3 Over throughout much of his career, the Cyclone DC was forced to implement a 3-3-5 with three safeties prior to the 2017 season - a look that they continue to use with great success today.
Many believe Heacock, age 60, will follow Campbell to whatever blue-blood program eventually gets him to sign on the dotted line. But that move may be at least another year away, and the invitation to come back home and work for the Buckeyes could be hard to pass up, even if it means he isn't calling plays.
Pros: A veteran coach like Heacock may be the perfect replacement for Mattison's experience and wisdom, while someone like Addae might provide a jolt of youth and enthusiasm along with new ideas.
Cons: Developing chemistry with the rest of the staff is clearly important to Day, and finding the balance of personality with respected voices like Coombs and Johnson and the scheme knowledge needed to infuse new ideas is a thin needle to thread.
Give Kerry Coombs the Keys and Get Out of the Way
After the events in Miami two weeks ago, few Buckeye fans will likely welcome this option. However, it's not as if this is Coombs' first time leading a defense.
Despite spending the 13 seasons prior to last as a position coach, Coombs spent 18 years in charge of some of the best high school defenses in the state of Ohio. To do so, he didn't just sit in Cover 3, either.
The 59-year old coach has coached just about every system since joining Brian Kelly's Cincinnati staff in 2007, mentoring secondaries that ran single-high, two-high, and split-field coverages that employed man, zone, and match techniques. With the Tennessee Titans, Coombs learned directly from one of the league's best coordinators in Dean Pees, who is about as far from the Pete Carroll coaching tree as one might find, mixing and disguising looks with great success.
In the CFP semifinal, Coombs showed glimpses of what he'd learned with the Titans, showing a 6-man blitz and sending the middle linebacker while maintaining the Cover 3 zone behind it, resulting in a near INT.
As we know now, Coombs and co. had little time to prepare anything similar for Alabama, getting only one padded practice between the two games due to COVID protocols. If given a full slate of spring and fall practices, who knows what might be to come.
"As the season went on, we weren’t just solely in [single-high]," Day told the media last week. "We went to some two-high stuff, we went to a little bit more zone pressure, so it’s going to evolve."
Pros: A clear decision-making process with just one coordinator and play-caller; potential to promote a younger coach to a co-coordinator down the road if such an offer comes from the outside.
Cons: It's all on one guy. Is he up to the task?