Defensive Coaches Discuss Staff Changes

We had a chance to visit with OSU's four remaining defensive coaches, including new coordinator Mark Snyder, on Friday. The coaches say they have no intention of allowing OSU's high standards to drop, despite the loss of seven starters and coordinator Mark Dantonio to the head job at Cincinnati.

OSU head coach Jim Tressel apparently decided he did not want to mess with a good thing.

On Thursday night, Tressel announced he would elevate linebackers coach Mark Snyder to replace departed defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio, who left to become the head coach at Cincinnati. At the same time, he named defensive backs coach Mel Tucker as the co-defensive coordinator and moved Luke Fickell from special teams coach to linebackers coach to replace Snyder. Jim Heacock remains OSU's defensive line coach, a position he has held since 1996.

This marks the second time Tressel has named Snyder as his defensive coordinator. It also happened in 1996, when they were together at Youngstown State. Shortly thereafter, Snyder left to become defensive ends coach at Minnesota, the last job he had before coming to OSU with Tressel in 2001.

"Being an Ohio guy, from Southern Ohio and growing up in Ironton, watching the Buckeyes my whole life and coming up to games with my dad … and to think that Coach Tress would have that kind of trust in me, it's a great, great feeling," Snyder said. "It's a dream come true, sitting here where I'm sitting today, working for the guy I've always wanted to work for, the guy who brought me up in this profession. To have this opportunity is just remarkable."

With seven starters and Dantonio departing, Snyder knows he and his staff will need to get to work if the Buckeyes want to maintain their lofty status as a defensive unit.

"We lost some good senior leadership this past season and, along with that, we lost a great senior leader on our defensive staff," Snyder said. "But we're excited just like our young players are to get 2004 started. We started it on a good note and we're going to try and continue with that momentum. Everybody's got to rise to the occasion.

"I'd like to think that we're all a part of that success. We all tried to help set the bar. We're excited right now. No matter what would have happened we would have tried to continue to raise that bar. You're either getting better or you're getting worse. We would look forward either way to keep raising that bar."

There is still one open spot on the OSU staff. Tressel assists the five-man offensive staff, so it is a good bet that whoever he hires may have special teams and defensive responsibilities, likely helping Tucker with the DBs or, as Fickell did, helping Heacock with the line.

But Snyder said he had no indication which direction Tressel was heading with this hiring, "You'd have to ask Coach Tressel that."

Tucker Time

Tucker's promotion to co-coordinator solidifies him as one of the game's up-and-coming coaching talents. He expects a smooth relationship with Snyder as they game plan for opponents as a staff.

"Obviously, we've all had a lot of input in our game planning and our scheming," Tucker said. "I don't think that is going to change. We've had five guys helping to make those decisions. Now we have four. I think our scheme is going to be very similar. We're going to try and improve in areas we can improve. That's what we do every year. That's what we've done every year."

One of Tucker's big emphases this spring will be sorting through his returning players at safety to find a replacement for Will Allen. Nate Salley returns at one safety spot, while Tyler Everett, Brandon Mitchell and Donte Whitner all saw action in support roles this past year.

"We tried to give those guys as much playing time as we could over the course of the year," Tucker said. "All of those guys who have played did a good job when they were in there. They're going to have to take their game to another level if we're going to be as good as we have been. Will Allen and Nate Salley did that this year. We lost Mike Doss and Donnie Nickey, who were great players. I don't think next year will be any different. Guys are going to have to step up and do that."

Fickell's Big Move

While Snyder has the challenge of calling the defense, Fickell, a former OSU defensive tackle, will branch out and take over the linebacker corps. According to Snyder, Fickell got his first taste of working with the LBs in December as a working audition for the job while the Buckeyes prepared for the Fiesta Bowl.

Looking at how the linebackers played in the Fiesta Bowl -- A.J. Hawk, Robert Reynolds and Bobby Carpenter led OSU in tackles -- maybe they have found a natural here.

"Luke worked with me all through the Fiesta Bowl," Snyder said. "He worked with the linebackers. I was tremendously impressed with the knowledge he has of the linebacker position. He has a rapport with those guys. Along the way, I'm going to continue to help a little bit. But I think Luke is going to do a great job. The players respond to him. He has a good relationship with that group. I think he's going to do a great job."

Fickell has the luxury of working with some veterans, including Hawk and Carpenter as well as transfers Antony Schlegel and John Kerr.

"There are three or four guys who are football players," Fickell said. "We've got a good strong nucleus of guys. Like I told them, the hardest thing sometimes when you have four or five really good guys is how do you get them on the field? It's something I look forward to. It's a rich position. Hopefully, it can be the strength of the team."

Although he didn't play linebacker, Fickell believes he can handle coaching a different position.

"To me, it's coaching," he said. "I think you've got to learn all the time. I told the guys yesterday in the meeting, I'm going to learn from them. They're going to learn from me, too, but I'm going to learn from them. That wouldn't matter if I was coaching the defensive line or anywhere. I want to learn from the players. As soon as you think you don't need to learn anymore, problems set in. It's a great opportunity for me."

Heacock: The Veteran

Heacock is convinced the remaining defensive staff will be able to help the Buckeyes uphold their high standards.

"I don't think we'll miss a beat," he said. "Mark's not going to be in the meeting, but other than that it will be the same group doing the same thing. I don't think there will be a big change or something drastic by any means."

Heacock will be starting over up front with three openings this spring.

"One of the reasons we do the rotation, particularly early in the season, is to get those guys some playing time," Heacock said. "Look at Marcus Green. He started a game last year. Quinn Pitcock played a lot last year. Jay Richardson played some. David Patterson played. Even though they weren't starters, they all got reps. A lot of them played in the bowl game. That's the advantage of getting the rotation going and rolling guys through. It's not going to be like we're going to go out there with four guys who have never played before. Probably the group next year will have more depth. We'll probably have more numbers with eight guys who can play and roll through. I'm kind of excited about that challenge.

"We'll miss Will (Smith) and Tim (Anderson) and Darrion (Scott). They were fun to coach, but I'm kind of looking forward to it."

Heacock discussed using Patterson, who opened at defensive tackle, at defensive end. Likewise, Joel Penton has been working some at tackle after spending last spring at end.

"Both of those guys are versatile," Heacock said. "That's a nice thing about both of them. Patterson, in the bowl game, we played him at end. He is also capable of playing inside. Joel has been inside and outside both. That gives us a little bit of a luxury to move guys around a little bit."

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