Ash first arrived in Madison, Wisc., in 2010 as the secondary coach. He transformed the No. 55 passing defense into the No. 26 passing defense in the country. The next year, having been promoted to co-defensive coordinator (a position which designated him as the defensive play-caller), the Badgers improved to No. 4 in the country in passing yards allowed before dropping slightly to No. 18 in 2012. At no point in his tenure did Wisconsin allow an average of 200 yards per game over the course of a season.
He followed Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas for the 2013 season, and the results were far from stellar. The Razorbacks allowed 235.0 passing yards per game, good enough for No. 72 in the country. Still, that far out-produced the previous season for the Hogs, in which they finished 113th in passing yards allowed. It also ranked far better than Ohio State in 2013, with the Buckeyes fielding the nation's 110th-best pass defense.
In crunching the numbers, what is perhaps being overlooked is what Ash had to work with at each particular school and how that affected his scheme. Examining his previous coaching stops provides context for his results as well as a glimpse into what to expect during his time in Columbus.
"It's not even close"
Ash's best years came at Wisconsin, and he managed to field a top-30 pass defense in all three years despite inheriting a unit that was admittedly short on talent. According to Scout.com rankings, the Badgers fielded a starting lineup in the defensive secondary comprised of two two-star recruits and two three-star recruits in all three years of Ash's tenure. None were ever drafted, although several were signed as undrafted free agents.
"Wisconsin doesn't get those crème de la crème players like Ohio State does, and so they kind of have to make due with the three-star kids," Scout Wisconsin publisher Benjamin Worgull told BuckeyeSports.com. "You look at what Wisconsin can recruit in the secondary and what Ohio State can recruit in the secondary and it's not even close, but that group actually transformed into a pretty good unit under him."
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has repeatedly stated his distaste for redshirting, preferring instead to play athletes immediately when possible. Former five-star true freshmen Joey Bosa and Vonn Bell both shined in the Orange Bowl, with Bosa recording a sack and Bell snagging a goal-line interception.
That's something that Ash has yet to experience. At Wisconsin, recruiting primarily focused on the offensive line, tight ends and linebackers. That left the secondary saddled with some projects instead of players who could provide an instant impact.
"They usually have to recruit guys who are raw and just kind of develop them," Worgull said. "That's what Wisconsin has been big on for the last handful of years – developing players over time in the hope that they turn out to be pretty good players by their junior or senior year."
At Arkansas, he inherited a slightly more talented group of players that had produced a vastly inferior product on the field. In 2012, a grand total of seven FBS teams fielded a worse pass defense than the Hogs.
When Ash was hired, he became the squad's third defensive coordinator in as many years, and he inherited a starting lineup that featured three three-stars and one four-star. By the end of the season, injuries had left Arkansas with a true freshman and redshirt freshman starting at cornerback. Only one defensive back started all 12 contests, and eight players received at least one start at cornerback or safety.
"The defense has been so off at Arkansas for the last few years," Arkansas Scout publisher Clay Henry said. "Even when (former head coach Bobby) Petrino was there, they won by outscoring people. In some ways, they did better as far as giving up big plays (under Ash). After spring practice, Ash told me, ‘We do have some players on defense that would play at schools across the country. But we have some that wouldn't play anywhere.' Without question, I think the talent level is not the same as Ohio State. He's going to have better players at Ohio State by a large amount. I don't know who's returning, but I promise you it's better than what he had at Arkansas."
Unlike fellow new addition Larry Johnson Sr., Ash isn't particularly known for his recruiting prowess. His primary focus will be on fixing the defense, but that doesn't mean that he won't be able to do the necessary work to keep the secondary stockpiled for years to come.
"From a recruiting point of view, we'll see," BuckeyeSports.com recruiting analyst Bill Greene said. "He's a darn good recruiter and he's recruited all over – the Midwest and the South. He was brought in to fix the defense, but he's shown he can be a good recruiter. He did a good job at Iowa State and Wisconsin. We really didn't see much out of him at Arkansas, but his approach will play well. He's a Midwest guy, no nonsense. He's not a huckster or a slick-talking salesman at all. He's just an old-school, very direct guy, and that's going to play very well in Midwest living rooms."
Breaking down the scheme
Having better personnel will likely enable Ash to fully utilize all the elements of his defensive approach. While he has stated he likes playing an aggressive defense and even made an instructional DVD on the subject , his cornerbacks didn't play much press coverage at Wisconsin and Arkansas. Both Worgull and Henry said that they expect that to change at OSU with the caliber of players that Ash will have at his disposal.
"With his corners, he likes to play press, but they just couldn't play press against SEC wide receivers," Henry said. "They didn't press or corner blitz very often. They tried to do it early on and just couldn't do it. I think he'll have a much easier time doing that at Ohio State."
Ash plays a base 4-3 defense, but what he throws at opposing offenses depends on the personnel that he faces each week. He used a nickel back against the spread attacks of Auburn and Texas A&M but relied on a three-linebacker look against the more traditional offenses in the Southeastern Conference.
"When you say they're in a 4-3, they played with a nickel safety who would line up in a linebacker position but was definitely a defensive back," Henry said. "That's probably 80 percent of what they played in those games against spread offenses. Florida, Alabama and LSU were not spread, and in those games they did play their base 4-3. One game you may not see a true 4-3, and the next game it may be all 4-3, but they definitely play a 4-3 base."
The third-year defensive coordinator likes to use traditional schemes on first and second down before mixing it up on third down, throwing many different looks at opposing quarterbacks. Each year in Wisconsin, Ash improved the Badgers' third-down defense, which rose from 68th to 17th nationally in that span.
"They don't blitz a lot on first and second down and try to get it into third-and-long, and then they do what he describes as ‘have fun' on third down," Henry said. "If you look at Wisconsin tape, you'll see they'll put a lot of defensive ends on the field in situations like third-and-7. There might be one defensive end down, but there will be a lot of guys standing up everywhere, just milling about. They don't ever really line up – and then they come. He says it's just having fun and getting after the quarterback. That's how they play on third down. At the same time, they're not blitzing willy-nilly. They'll often break down and not send everyone."
Having been described as a man with head coaching ambitions, Ash will have to find a way to make that scheme work over the next couple of years at Ohio State. He's produced well enough at each stop to keep climbing the ladder, but the talk of having inadequate rosters that struggle to carry out his plans will cease once he steps foot in Ohio Stadium.
Those who have covered him in the past are betting that he keeps on climbing, however.
"What he was put through this year, I wouldn't look at the numbers and say that's Chris Ash," Henry said. "That was him just scrambling and trying to catch up with what he was given at Arkansas. He's very well prepared, very much a student of the game."