Seems safe to say the last 12 months went better professionally than the previous 12 for Luke Fickell.
One can tell that by the fact it's possible to read a story without "the embattled" attached to his "defensive coordinator" identifier in news stories. The big smile he wore in the locker room of the Indianapolis Colts late on the first Saturday night of December was also a dead giveaway, too.
Fickell had the right to bask a little bit following Ohio State's 59-0 win in the Big Ten Championship Game. After all, not only had his defense pitched a shutout against Big Ten West champion Wisconsin, it was an effort led by the front seven. While the defensive line dominated a powerful Badger front, the linebackers Fickell coaches did a good job cleaning up what was left over.
Fickell, though, still tried to spread the praise around when it was all over.
"This feels really good," he said. "We could all sit there and pat ourselves on the back, but I'm so happy for these guys. Some of these seniors an other guys defensively we've had our ups and downs and to be able to come together and do it on this stage and at this time -- you've got to be able to play your best at the end of the year."
The scene marked a major departure from the year before, when the Buckeyes left the field at Lucas Oil Stadium a dejected bunch. The defense in particular struggled as Ohio State dropped a 34-24 decision to Michigan State. The underdog Spartans had gotten out to a big lead against the Buckeyes with big plays in the passing game, then the upstarts put the game away with a grind-it-out ground game. At one point Ohio State's offense had put the Buckeyes back on top, but it was a lead that wouldn't hold. Their next time out, they again looked anything like the "Silver Bullets" of old as they had no answer for Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd or receiver Sammy Watkins, who keyed a 40-35 Tigers' victory in the Orange Bowl. Those 35 points marked the most Ohio State has ever scored in a loss, and they led to an offseason of uncertainty for Fickell.
But Fickell did all he knows how to do -- he buried his head and went back to work. With Chris Ash coming in to help fix the back end of the defense -- the 2013 Buckeyes were, statistically, the second-worst pass defense in school history -- Fickell could concentrate on getting the front seven in order.
That is something he's known a lot about over the past 20 years, starting with his four-year starting stint at one of the most grueling positions on the field, nose tackle, but his knowledge of coordinating an entire stop unit had come into question over the past couple of seasons after the Buckeyes failed to meet the admittedly high standards set over the previous decade by teams coached by Jim Tressel with Jim Heacock serving as defensive coordinator.
But this was not the first time Fickell went through an offseason in which the defense was a major question mark. The unit also failed Ohio State late in his junior season -- 1995 -- including a 313-yard rushing day by Michigan running back Tim Biakabutuka that helped ruin the Buckeyes' perfect season. That led to significant changes in the Ohio State scheme, including more aggressive approach under new coordinator Fred Pagac Sr. that Fickell conceded prior to this season mirrored in some ways the changes instituted for 2014. Those Buckeyes, with Fickell anchoring the middle while players such as Mike Vrabel, Matt Finkes, Andy Katzenmoyer, Damon Moore and Shawn Springs became stars, because the first known as "Silver Bullets," and they set a standard that has been chased ever since.
"I can sit there and tell you as a friend he was a great player," Finkes told BuckeyeSports.com. "I mean the guy was 285 pounds, maybe, and he played like he was 320. You could not move him out of the middle, and you had to block him with two people. He ate blocks and that's what made guys like Andy Katzenmoyer and Lorenzo Styles and other linebackers able to get the numbers."
To help Ohio State get back to somewhere closer to playing at that level, Fickell went to work developing his guys' skills and their camaraderie. At the behest of head coach Urban Meyer, he cultivated a greater level of effort and consistency among the defensive players, who learned they needed to count on each other while also getting their own jobs done.
"I think his whole life he's been a gritty guy," Michael Bennett, a senior who was Ohio State's nose tackle for most of this season, said in July. "He's a wrestler, he was a really good wrestler. You have to have something a little off in your head to be a wrestler, so you can tell he's a little crazy but he cares at the same time. You know that he cares a lot, so he probably put the team first. Nose guard and three-techs usually have to do that because you're not going to get as much notoriety as a d-end maybe, so you can kind of tell by his personality that he would have been a nose guard and had the right mentality for it."
Players such as Bennett and linebacker Josh Perry agreed they were happy to see Fickell be able to enjoy the redemptive win over the Badgers.
"He loves Ohio State and wants only the best for Ohio State," Perry said. "I know people have said some things about him in the media and people were probably down on him when the defense wasn't playing great but he was one of those guys who shuts all that out. To see what happened when we played Wisconsin and then to see his reaction, how happy he was in the locker room, it was amazing. I appreciate everything he has done for me. He coaches us hard because he cares about us and we play hard for him."
It was a sentiment also shared by the head coach, who at once expects excellence from all those around him but values loyalty and believes in personal development as a means to improvement on and off the field.
"I had my reservations during the year like everybody did, it was about stopping the run because we really started a back-end first approach to pass defense," Meyer said a day after the Big Ten title game. "We've always been the front end first. After last week's performance, we are still too young to say were a finished product. There are too many young players out three. The future is very bright though.
"I was so happy for Luke. I love Luke. He's a Buckeye, he's a great family man, he's a guy that I have a lot of respect for. He's a guy that we have hard conversations about. He was in a very interesting situation when I got here and he had no reason to be as loyal as he has been to me. We were abysmal in pass defense a year ago so we blew it all completely up. That's a credit to being able to bring in a guy the quality of Chris Ash who is a fine coach and left a coordinator role to be a co-coordinator here without any hesitation and without any hesitation on Luke Fickell's part on whose calling, we don't have that."
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