Thinking Out Loud: The Savior of Rome
By Brandon Castel
Back in 2010, Jim Tressel’s final season as coach of the Buckeyes, the Ohio State defense ranked first in the Big Ten at defending the pass; eighth nationally.
With guys like Jermale Hines, Chimdi Chekwa, Devon Torrence and Orhian Johnson on the back end – along with a front that included Cam Heyward, Nathan Williams, John Simon, Dexter Larimore and Johnathan Hankins – the Buckeyes allowed just 165 yards per game through the air.
Photo by Jim Davidson
They gave up nine passing touchdowns all season, tied for the second fewest in all of college football, and Ohio State went 12-1 with a win over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. Believe it or not, that was the program’s last bowl victory; Ryan Mallett was still playing quarterback for the Razorbacks.
The Buckeyes have won a lot of football games over the last two years, but they have not won a postseason game of any kind since that night in New Orleans. Urban Meyer’s perfect 24-0 start was marred by back-to-back losses against Michigan State and Clemson in the Big Ten Title Game and Orange Bowl.
It could have been a lot worse if Tyvis Powell hadn’t intercepted that pass from Devin Gardner on the 2-point conversion try. Had that ball ended up in the hands of Devin Funchess, rather than Powell, the feeling in Columbus would be less disappointment at the way the season ended and more outrage, though not necessarily directed at Meyer, who has delivered as both a recruiter, leader and offensive sage since taking over the program two years ago.
Ohio State finished third in the country in scoring offense this season – behind only Baylor and Florida State; they were fifth in rushing and seventh in total offense during Meyer’s second season in Columbus.
Something’s Got to Give
The problem for the Buckeyes was not their ability to score, although the gameplan against Michigan State played right into the hands of Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi. Ohio State’s glaring weakness was on the defensive side of the football, which is why Meyer made it a point to go out and find a defensive coordinator this offseason.
With Luke Fickell running the defense, Ohio State was rapidly approaching rock bottom. Over the final three games of the 2013 season, the Buckeyes allowed 41, 34, and 40 points respectively – nearly losing all three games. The 41 points allowed to the Wolverines may have been the most alarming. Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges, who has since been relieved of his duties, had Fickell and the OSU defense on its heels all afternoon.
The Wolverines finished 10th in the conference in total offense this season, but they racked up 451 yards through the air against Ohio State’s leaky pass defense; with Gardner nearly leading them down the field to victory in the final minutes of the game.
For the season, Fickell’s defense finished second-to-last in the Big Ten in pass defense, ahead of only Indiana. They were in the same position last season, ahead of only Northwestern, but the numbers were much worse in 2013. Part of that is Ohio State’s improved offensive potency, but that’s not an excuse that works with Urban Meyer.
Fickell’s defense allowed 268 yards per game through the air this season, over 100 yards more than that OSU defense averaged back in 2010. The Buckeyes also allowed 31 passing touchdowns, the sixth worst total in all of college football.
By comparison, those 31 passing touchdowns equal the total amount allowed by the OSU defense from 2008-2010, Tressel’s final three seasons in Columbus.
Time for a Change
With that information staring him in the face, Urban Meyer knew he had to do something different this offseason. When co-defensive Everett Withers left for the head coaching job at James Madison – a move that may or may not have been encouraged by Meyer – the Buckeyes went out and landed defensive coordinator Chris Ash away from Arkansas.
Going back to Withers for a moment, there is no evidence that he was forced out at Ohio State, but James Madison hardly seems like the dream landing spot for a guy who was once the interim head coach at the University of North Carolina. No doubt Withers charm and laid back demeanor will probably suit him better in a place like Virginia at a lower level than the bright lights of Ohio Stadium.
Withers is about as likable as any coach I’ve been around. During his two years in Columbus, he was thoughtful, courteous and clearly understands the game of football. The players seemed to like him, but his coaching style and philosophies never seemed to gel with Fickell. Right from the beginning, they talked about having different ideas of how to run defense, which probably explains a little bit of the confusion we saw on defense over the last two years.
That being said, it’s pretty hard to overlook the disastrous play of Ohio State’s secondary under Withers’ tutelage. The loss of Christian Bryant was devastating for their pass defense this season, but this was bigger than one player. This was a systemic problem that led to some of the worst numbers an Ohio State secondary has ever registered.
Bryant or no Bryant. Bradley Roby or no Bradley Roby, this OSU secondary needed a change. Maybe the defense did too.
Savior of Rome
We still don’t know for sure what role Chris Ash will play on the OSU coaching staff next season, but Jim Harris of Sporting Arkansas Life certainly seems to believe Ash will be running the defense in Columbus.
“At Ohio State, Chris Ash will walk in as coordinator,” Harris wrote.
“He’s supposedly ‘co-’ coordinator in title only; he’ll call the shots with a program loaded with prospects.”
While the Buckeyes lose three starters from their secondary in 2013 – including Roby and C.J. Barnett – the team is loaded with young talent. Cornerback Doran Grant will be a senior and the leader of the secondary next year, but the other four starters will be young guys.
Five-star recruit Vonn Bell made his presence felt in the Orange Bowl, and he’s slated for a starting spot in Ohio State’s 2014 secondary. The same goes for redshirt sophomore Tyvis Powell. Other names Ash will have to work with this offseason include Cam Burrows, Eli Apple, Armani Reeves, Gareon Conley, Devan Bogard, Jayme Thompson, Chris Worley and Ron Tanner.
Most of those guys were four- or five-star recruits; compared to the two- and three-star kids Ash was working with, both at Wisconsin and last season at Arkansas.
“Ash will likely have the physical, fast safeties and solid corners who can press receivers at the line,” Harris added, “to play a little more recklessly in Columbus that he and Bret Bielema thought they could with Arkansas in 2013.”
The Razorbacks did improve their pass defense from 113th nationally to 72nd last season under Ash, despite the fact Arkansas went 3-9 and winless in the SEC during Bret Bielema’s first season.
The Buckeyes are also adding some highly touted players to their secondary in this year’s class. That includes Glenville’s Erick Smith, who has been compared to Donte Whitner, along with safety Malik Hooker out of Pennsylvania and corner Damon Webb, one of the highest-rated prospects in the state of Michigan.
As my colleague Tony Gerdeman astutely pointed out, it doesn’t make much sense for Ash to leave Arkansas to take a secondary role in Columbus similar to what Withers played the last two seasons. Not with the results Meyer has seen from a Fickell-led defense the last two seasons.
Even Luke has to look at the numbers and realize he wasn’t getting the job done as defensive coordinator. With the loss of Mike Vrabel, it makes sense for Meyer to keep Fickell on his staff, regardless of who’s running the defense – and I do believe it will be Ash, not Fickell. Luke is a lifelong Buckeye, a good teacher and a solid recruiter.
Losing him as an assistant coach would not be a win for Ohio State, in my opinion, but whatever happens we do know one thing – Ash’s track record for coaching defensive backs speaks for itself.
It was no accident the guy Meyer went out and hired to replace Withers as co-defensive coordinator was also a guy with an impeccable record for teaching secondary play. Ash has a master’s degree in education from Iowa State, and he started coaching the Cyclones’ secondary back in 2002.
He was hired to coach the defensive backs at Wisconsin in 2010, and his first defense produced three all-Big Ten players in the secondary. The Badgers improved from 56th in the country in pass defense in 2009 to 26th during Ash’s first season in Madison.
They jumped all the way to the fourth-best pass defense in the country in 2011, which was Ash’s first as the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin. The Badgers were also second in the Big Ten in takeaways that season, while holding opponents to an average of 19 points per contest.
With those kinds of numbers on defense, Ohio State could do some pretty special things over the next few seasons.