Kerry Coombs was brought out to meet with the media on National Signing Day in part because of his prodigious talents when it comes to making connections with high school recruits, but his interview quickly took a turn in one direction – what are the Buckeyes doing to shore up massive problems defending the pass in 2013.
When asked if his role was changing with the hiring of Chris Ash – the former Arkansas defensive coordinator, who has been tabbed OSU's co-coordinator and safeties coach as well as the passing game guru – Coombs gave an interesting answer.
"I don't know that my role is changing, as much as the style in which we're going to coach the back end is certainly going to be different," he said. "What has to happen in any collective group or part of defense is that everybody's gotta be understanding what everybody's doing at all times.
"I don't think we function very well in isolation. And so one of the things that Coach Meyer and I talked about almost immediately after the season was installation of pass coverage, concepts and communication, having one voice. And that that would be very important to everybody in the back end.
"What I would tell you is that Chris and I are going to function as a team in the back end. We will have one voice. We both may be saying it but we'll be saying the same thing so that when we meet together, when we coach together, when we're practicing together, we're all using the same terms, the same phrases, the same words, coaching things … and I think that's very important."
Writers' ears immediately perked up. Was Coombs, the team's cornerbacks coach, suggesting there had been a rift in the way things were done last year when safeties coach Everett Withers served as co-defensive coordinator?
"No, not at all," Coombs replied. "Everett and I work well together. What I'm saying is our style of teaching in separate rooms at times and things like that can lend itself to separate communication points. And I believe very strongly that those things, the more you can do things in a group setting, the better off you're going to be."
Whatever it was that happened, it seems clear that the Buckeyes need to make some major strides in the back end. The number that will forever hover over the 2013 season – other than 24, the school-record winning streak the program hit with a win at Michigan – is 110, which was the standing Ohio State held at the end of the season in Division I when it comes to passing yards allowed per game.
Lending some more credence to Coombs' observation was the fact that the back seven of the defense was replete with coverage and communication breakdowns in 2013, especially when allowing at least 300 passing yards and a total of 12 touchdowns in season-ending games vs. Michigan, Michigan State and Clemson.
Head coach Urban Meyer refused to place the blame on any specific people or schemes, but he did say that things will be different when the Buckeyes get back at it when spring football starts Tuesday.
"I have a lot of confidence in the coaches that were here," Meyer said. "And obviously we didn't perform up to standard. We won a lot of games but there were some holes. Holes are very easy to blame players or blame coaches. Just overall we need to freshen up our defense. That's what's going to get ready to take place over the next few months."
Communication Is Key
Coombs has maintained that the arrangement in the secondary – in which it appears Ash will have free reign to institute his press coverage, quarters scheme – will work out simply because of the way the Buckeyes plan to go about teaching the attack that has allowed Ash to put together much improved units at both Arkansas and Wisconsin.
"Chris and I will work together to make that happen and there will be times when we will be working right half and left half," Coombs said. "And at times we'll be working corners and safeties, and at times we'll be functioning with four guys doing things together so that there's – we've talked with our players about this. I would think they would tell you the same thing, that all of that will lead, I think, to greater communication, which should be our objective going forward."
That echoes what defensive coordinator Luke Fickell has been saying since the defense has started having its troubles.
"The reality is we all work together," the former OSU lineman said. "That's why football is the greatest team sport known to man. People can point fingers and look at stats and say you're this and this, you're this and this, but the reality is there's 11 guys out there and they're all responsible to work together, whether it's pass, run, doesn't matter.
"So the ability for us to continue to get better and work together, I think, is the biggest thing we've got to do."
Working together with Ash will be one of the things Fickell will have to get used to as well. Meyer said on National Signing Day that while Fickell will have the final say on making defensive calls during games, collaboration has been stressed. Then Sunday on the Buckeye Cruise for Cancer, the head coach had this to say about the subject.
"I'm still evaluating the whole thing on defense," he said. "I have a lot of respect for Coach Fickell. We've made mistakes in recruiting, we've had some injuries, and we haven't played very well at certain times. I still remember, there was a decade of football where the Ohio State defense was as strong as any defense in the country. We have to develop our players, keep recruiting our players and we have to do better."
One thing that seems to be sure is that the Buckeyes will be heading to using the quarters, attacking defense that Michigan State utilized while rampaging to a 13-1 record and Rose Bowl win in 2013. "Aggressive" is a word Ash seems to favor, and he has been known to use interesting, attacking third-down schemes while using a base press defense that allows cornerbacks to by physical with wideouts while giving safeties the freedom to attack the line of scrimmage as they see fit.
"I would think you would see a more aggressive style of play across the board from alignment to attack and so forth," Coombs said. "I don't want to speak out of turn, but I would say absolutely that would be the desire on everybody's part."
Can Personnel Be Better?
This remains to be seen. Certainly a different scheme could help the Buckeyes when it comes to playing better pass defense, but it's not a good sign when the two first-team All-Big Ten choices out of the back seven – linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby – are out of the mix after leaving early for the NFL.
Both were flawed players at times – Shazier was prone to playing out of control during his OSU career, while Roby didn't live up to expectations during his senior campaign – but were also freak athletes capable of making game-changing plays.
There are a bevy of talented players coming from behind each. At linebacker, true freshman Raekwon McMillan, a top-50 recruit, will enter and battle the two returnees along with Camren Williams, while Trey Johnson, Tyquan Lewis and Darron Lee could also be in the mix depending on where they line up. In the defensive backfield, Gareon Conley and Eli Apple will come off redshirts to battle Armani Reeves at corner, while Cameron Burrows, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell provide talent at safety along with Ron Tanner and Christopher Worley.
Which of those players might step up will go a long way in determining the fate of the 2014 Buckeye defense, but one thing is for sure – with a new coaching staff in place and new schemes to be used, everyone will have a clean slate when the pads get snapped on.
"I'll be quite honest with you: I'm not concerned about what's happened here in the past," Ash said. "I really don't care. I'm more concerned with the direction that we're going to go and how we get the players aligned with what our vision is going to be and we get better from today on. I really don't care what's happened in the past."