Yes, there is still Ohio State football going on and a bowl game to prepare for, but it’s never too early to speculate on who may be part of Ryan Day’s new coaching staff when he takes over for Urban Meyer on January 2.
Even though Day said on Tuesday that he wouldn’t start thinking about his future OSU coaching staff until after the Rose Bowl, rest assured that there are resumes coming in and feelers going out.
Don’t expect everyone to return, as coaching turnover always happens when a head coach leaves and the new man in charge looks to bring in his own people. Some assistant coaches are more attached to the previous regime and will either choose to move on or be asked to move on.
While change could occur on both sides of the ball, it’s not unreasonable to expect an opening on defense. The Buckeyes are ninth in the Big Ten in total defense, allowing 400.3 yards per game. A year ago they were fourth, allowing 300.9 yards per game.
Things have gotten worse since Luke Fickell left to become Cincinnati’s head coach following the 2016 season and he doesn’t appear to be coming back any time soon.
There is, however, an alternative, and his name is Marcus Freeman.
Freeman, the former Buckeye linebacker who played under Fickell at OSU from 2004-2008, is the defensive coordinator for Fickell at Cincinnati.
The Bearcats currently have the No. 7 scoring defense in the nation (16.1 ppg), the No. 8 rush defense (103.8 ypg), and the No. 8 total defense (291.9 ypg). They became just the second team in the last 11 years to shut out Navy, beating the Midshipmen 42-0 earlier this season.
Before UC, Freeman was with former OSU assistant Darrell Hazell at Purdue, where he was the linebackers coach beginning in 2013. He was promoted to co-defensive coordinator prior to the 2016 season, which would be Hazell’s last at Purdue.
Prior to that final season, I went to the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago with plans on writing a story on Freeman, so I spoke with Hazell and Purdue linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley to get some insight. I never ended up writing the story, or maybe I’m just doing it now.
Just trust me when I tell you that everything Bentley told me, I had already heard from former Buckeye players when talking about Luke Fickell.
“I love him. Yeah,” Bentley said back then. “It’s easy to talk to him and have conversations. Linebacker talk. He’s a guy who is not too far removed from the game. We still watch his games when they come on the Big Ten Network. So we’ll be watching him [miss a tackle] and be like, ‘Whoa Coach, what happened on that play?’ He’s a great coach and he gets the most out of his players.
“One thing that I love about him is that he finds different ways to get certain things out of certain players. The training that we do with him is harder than what we do with the team. Many times as a linebacker group we go outside of team and we do certain things. We have these ‘Winner-Loser’ days. We have ‘Hell Day.’ That was something new for us. He constantly switches it up. He keeps you on your toes whether you’re a starter or you’re not playing at all or a special teams guy, you get asked the same questions. Every meeting you better be tuned in.”
Freeman would pit his group against themselves in any number of competitions at the drop of a hat. Lifting, tug-of-war, whatever. They always had to be ready. It was as much physical as mental because a mental error at the wrong time is just as bad as a missed tackle.
There was also training done with the goal of providing perspective.
“We had a workout with the Navy SEALs. That was interesting,” Bentley said. “I have now experienced a whole different level of toughness when you’re dealing with a Navy SEAL. We met some great ones. Last week we did some pool work with the Navy SEALs. They swim two miles. We learned that really quickly. We didn’t do near two miles at all. We got out, but we got what we needed.
“We worked out with the Navy SEALs. I love the things he does like that. Who expects you to go get Navy SEALs to help you through a workout. Just to see what they go through, you’re like, ‘Alright, maybe I’m tired, but I’m not doing what Navy SEALs do, so I’ll make it. I’ll survive.’ It’s stuff like that, I love Coach Freeman to death. And it’s things like that that makes a player go that much further for you.”
Hazell didn’t see Freeman the player as a future coach. It wasn’t until Freeman came back as a graduate assistant that Hazell began to notice the potential.
“When he’s a player, you’re looking at him in a different way,” Hazell said. “But when he came back, you said to yourself, ‘This guy’s got it.’ There’s something about him that’s going to make him really special. He works at it, first of all. He works at it. He’s great with the players. He has such a connection with those guys. He gets the most out of them and he’s very smart. He’s very smart.”
Hazell said that Freeman is a great listener and is always learning. Bentley said Freeman was always bringing back new techniques and teaching tools from other coaches he had talked to. He was always trying to improve his players and himself.
Even back in 2016, it was clear to Hazell that Freeman was one of the top young coaches in the game.
“He’s definitely one of those up-and-coming stars,” he said. “For sure. He’ll be a head coach at some point in time in his career.”
Freeman probably should have been hired by Ohio State to replace Luke Fickell two years ago. That didn’t happen and one could argue that the Buckeyes have paid for it dearly.
Whether or not there is an opening on the defensive staff when Ryan Day takes over remains to be seen, but if there is, a call to Marcus Freeman shouldn’t be too far down his list of things to do.
In fact, it should probably be right at the top.