Ohio State was 10th in total defense in the Big Ten last season and ninth in yards per play allowed. And it’s a testament to the rest of the poor defense played in the Big Ten last year that OSU’s 25.5 points allowed per game was actually good for seventh.
It didn’t take a member of Mensa to know that Ryan Day was going to have to make some changes when he took over.
Day went out and hired four new defensive coaches, saying goodbye to linebackers coach Bill Davis, cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson, and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, as well as watching safeties coach Alex Grinch bolt to Oklahoma.
In came Greg Mattison and Al Washington from Michigan, Matt Barnes from Maryland, and Jeff Hafley from the San Francisco 49ers.
In bringing in an almost entirely new staff, Ryan Day also brought in four new pairs of eyeballs to assess the talent on hand.
Watching players like Brendon White and Shaun Wade begin last season on the bench caused many to wonder who else should be playing that isn’t.
If it was just about personnel, however, then there would have been no need to make wholesale changes in the defensive staff. Day clearly wanted something different from his defense, and now the coaches he brought in to make those differences will have a fresh perspective on who should and shouldn’t be on the field.
As one of two new defensive coordinators and the man in charge in the secondary, Jeff Hafley has to balance what he’s seen on tape with what he sees live throughout spring practice. Any preconceived notions will be outweighed by what he sees in practice.
How will Hafley go about putting his depth chart together this season?
“That’s a good question,” he said. “Greg [Mattison] might have seen a little bit more because he’s played against Ohio State, and I’ve obviously studied the tape. I watched a little bit before I took the job. But for me, the best guys are going to play, and I mean that.
“I’ve started free agents over first-round draft picks. If I see a guy out working another guy, I mean, the whole room is going to see that. The whole defense is going to see it. So if that guy shows that he’s better, we’re going to get the best guys on the field, and I want guys to feel that way. It’s our job to play the best players.”
For Hafley, he is camping in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately section of the park. He’s watched tape from last year, and there were some bad moments. But last year was just a starting point. Literally. In last week’s first practice, it appeared that everyone who started last year was with the ones because they have to start somewhere this spring.
On day two, however, it was Baron Browning running with the ones at middle linebacker, and Tuf Borland with the twos.
The situation at middle linebacker is the one that probably gets the most attention because it was clear last season that Borland wasn’t 100% physically in his return from an Achilles tendon injury.
And just as Browning and Teradja Mitchell behind him have an opportunity to show Hafley and the rest of the defensive staff that they belong, Borland also has an opportunity to show how much further he’s come from last season’s laboring.
“I’ll always say, ‘I see better than I hear, just show me,'” Hafley said. “Put it on tape. Do the right things. Work. And then if you’re the best, you’ll play. And if it’s close, we’ll find a role for you. But that’s our jobs to do as coaches, get the best guys out there.”
The Buckeyes played more than just three linebackers last season, as Browning played quite a bit in nickel and also replaced Borland while he was out. Dante Booker got time, as did Justin Hilliard.
There’s enough talent here to find three starters, as well as players behind them who should be able to push for time, just as there are more safeties now than a year ago.
The options all over the field are plentiful, and Hafley has high expectations for the personnel overall.
Those expectations are also why he doesn’t foresee the defensive staff having difficulty in deciding who should be on the field and who shouldn’t.
“I think you’ve just got to spend time and turn on the tape,” he said. “I think that’s why morning workouts are important, and I think that’s why spring football will be important. It will give us the opportunity to do that, and I know we’re all very excited about that.”