Long after he has left Columbus for a head coaching gig, Mark Dantonio will be remembered by Ohio State fans as the architect of the nation's best defense in 2002 -- the unit that led the Buckeyes to the national championship.
But as popular as he may be, the second-year defensive coordinator isn't about to get complacent. He still thinks there's a lot of work to get done and is already breaking down the specifics of next year's D.
But, yes, he has taken some time to enjoy the fruits of the national title, although it still doesn't quite feel real to him.
"No, it hasn't sunk in yet," Dantonio said. "It probably won't for a while, but there is definitely a different buzz around here. It's a special time in this program."
Dantonio says he has watched the replay of OSU's 31-24 double-overtime win over Miami a couple of times and more than anything he is proud of his players.
"I just can't say enough about our players and the way they prepared and the way they responded," he said. "They came into the game with a lot of confidence and played outstanding."
Dantonio let us in on a little secret. Heading into the Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeye defense had "four keys to victory." They knew they needed to mix things up on the Hurricanes, but it all boiled down to four keys.
"No matter who we are playing, what we try and do is look at what they've had difficulty going against and do some of those same things in our scheme," Dantonio said. "I don't think you can devise something totally different, although we did have six weeks to prepare for Miami so we put in some new wrinkles that I think were affective. But we basically looked at the four things that needed to get done to win the ballgame. We went into the game saying we needed to affect the quarterback, which I think we were able to do. We also wanted to stop the run and make it a one-dimensional game. Then we wanted to come up with turnovers, which we were able to do. And the fourth thing was to eliminate the long run and long pass. They hit a couple 20-yard passes, but they did not get behind our guys and run a streak for a touchdown and make a quick score. That was our game plan and I think we did a good job of executing it."
Less than two weeks after the Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes received some more good news: defensive end Will Smith decided to return for his senior season. Dantonio was of course happy about the news, but said he did not try and push Smith one way or the other.
"Will, first of all, is a tremendous person as well as a player," Dantonio said. "When he was thinking it over, he came in and talked to (defensive line coach) Jim Heacock; I know he talked to (special teams/assistant defensive line coach) Luke Fickell; he talked to (head coach) Jim Tressel; and he also talked to myself. And I'm sure there were other players that he talked to. But he made the decision himself and I really learned about it when everyone else learned about it.
"Basically, what Will and I talked about was that whatever was best for him and his family, we would support him. Of course, in my opinion, him coming back is like getting the best recruit in America because he's a tremendous football player, tremendous leader and he has a lot of character. Those things carry over - the intangibles carry over in being able to win close games and affecting other people. He's an impact player because he can affect other people. He means so much to the other players on our team."
Ohio State's defensive line was nothing short of great this year. The unit will have to replace tackles Kenny Peterson and David Thompson next year, but you can definitely consider it a reloading year up front.
"That defensive front has the chance to be outstanding. Tim Anderson and Darrion Scott are two of the best in the Big Ten. Simon Fraser will get more opportunities and he's a playmaker. We of course have Will and there are some young guys waiting to get some time that we have confidence in."
Dantonio didn't want to say which of the young linemen (like Marcus Green, Joel Penton, Jay Richardson and Quinn Pitcock) were emerging as the best, but he did tackle the infamous Dustin Fox question.
If you've ever been to an OSU message board, you are more than familiar with the predicament: keep Fox at cornerback, or move him to safety?
"We need to talk with (defensive backs coach) Mel Tucker a little bit about that because he's going to have something to say about that as well as Dustin himself," Dantonio said. "But we're always going to put our four or five best defensive backs on the field in the best places for them. And really Dustin is going to have an opportunity to sit down and talk with us and whatever is going to be best for him and this football team is what we are going to do. He's definitely proved to me he can play out there (at corner), it's just a matter of whether he wants to come in and play safety. I think that he can play any of those positions. He's played our nickel back, he's played safety and now he's played corner. So, he'll be a junior next year and he should be a strength of the unit. We'll make those decisions as a group and really do what's best for the defense."
Another decision that will have to be made, but seems obvious, is whether or not to keep Chris Gamble at corner.
"I see no reason why he won't play both ways again," Dantonio said. "I think it was something that he was able to adjust to fairly well even though it was thrust upon him mid-season. Next year it should be easier for him. Very few players are able to do it, but Chris is one of the few that can," Dantonio said.
When was the first time Dantonio thought Gamble might be able to help on defense? The rumor is that it started sometime during spring ball of 2002.
"It was actually last year at the Outback Bowl," Dantonio said. "Some of the defensive guys and offensive guys were switching up a little and going one-on-one and I saw a little bit of film of Chris playing press coverage and playing blitz coverage near the goal line and we realized right then that he was something special. He and some of the guys did it again during one of the spring practices and he stood out again. So, at that point in time, we decided we would start lobbing a little bit. We managed to get a little practice time with him in the fall - five or 10 minutes here and there - and he just gradually started working into things. I don't think anybody really thought we'd put him in a game and then we stuck him in there. And, you know, he made a couple of plays here and there, almost picked off a goal line pass against Northwestern and the next thing you know he is making some plays. And right before the Penn State game, Coach Tressel said, 'I think he needs to play on defense a little bit more this game.' So, he jumped in there and did a good job. He is a tremendous talent and is very, very coachable and I think that's what's amazing: you can tell him one thing and he has it. He understands what you are talking about conceptually and is able to grasp that and go with it."
When you are the coach of the nation's best defense, it might be difficult to find flaws - specific areas for your players to improve in. But Dantonio says that won't be a problem.
"As far as improvements, we'll take this just like any other season. Look at the things we did well, look at the things we need to get better at and concentrate on those weaknesses and try and build on those, which is what we did last year. We thought red zone defenses and goal line were two of the things that we needed to get better at and we stressed that and were able to get better at that and I think that's one of the reasons we had so much success this year. We are in the process of looking back on every game film from this year and our players have some improvements to make without question."
Looking at the linebackers for next year, the Bucks will have to replace stalwart Matt Wilhelm in the middle and speedy Cie Grant on the outside. But don't expect the 'backers to be a weakness. There is plenty of talent returning according to Dantonio.
"At the WILL linebacker, A.J. Hawk played significantly this year behind Cie. He's a very good football player, very tough. He has excellent preparation. It's constant. How he practices is how he plays. We feel good about him coming into that position and we should be able to pick up where we left off there. At the MIKE linebacker, where Matt had a terrific season, we'll have Fred Pagac coming back and I think he'll be healthy. He had his shoulder operated on early. We also think Mike D'Andrea is coming on there. You know, he's a talent. He's a heavy hitter. He's an extremely, extremely hard-working person, and like A.J., he has excellent preparation. He will put the time in. Bobby Carpenter is another guy that could fit in there and we've even talked about moving Rob Reynolds into there. So, we've got some pieces we can move around. But one thing is for sure: we need to have a MIKE linebacker who's going to make plays and basically quarterback the front seven," Dantonio said.
With national signing day just around the corner, Dantonio is focused on recruiting right now. Does he get the impression that the national championship is helping the Bucks win some of the recruiting wars?
"I think that people are more excited now when Ohio State comes in. Ohio State has great tradition -- I don't think we've ever lacked in that area -- so everybody's always been very receptive. But people are excited about the national championship and the way we are doing things off the field, as well as on. So, we've been received maybe even better than usual. But, again, in this day and age, people like to stay home a little bit, so it's always very competitive out there. People want the opportunity to play right away. We had a great recruiting class last year and we are still out there working hard," Dantonio said.
Coming off the national title, the Buckeyes will be a marked team next year. Teams will be fired up to play them, just as the Bucks were fired up to play Miami.
"Yes, but when you're at Ohio State, you're taking everybody's best shot anyway (he knows this to be true from his days at Michigan State). I would like to think that this year's success gives us confidence going into next year. We've proved - not so much to the people outside the program, but to the people inside the program - that we can win close games. We've proved that we can compete with the best, we can handle some adversity and good things can happen when you play together and when nobody cares who gets the credit. That's exactly what happened this year. We had a different guy step up every game defensively. It was a complete team effort and that was exciting. The character of our team showed. So, that to me is as important as any wins and losses. I want our guys to enter every game with confidence and understanding that preparation can make the difference. Doing the intangible things that allow you to be a champion," Dantonio said.
Unfortunately, as much as we'd like to keep him as long as Tressel is around (a very long time), Dantonio is sure to get a prime head coaching job in the near future. The guess here is that he coaches just one more season at OSU. In fact, we're lucky he wasn't snatched up this year.
"It's one of my goals to be a head coach at some point," Dantonio
said. "But for myself and my family, we have no plans of leaving at this
time. We're very, very happy in Columbus. I think this is a great place to
coach, it's a great place to be. I'm an Ohio native, so this is where I want to
be. It's nice to be mentioned in those circles, I guess, but we're very happy to
be Buckeyes. I'm working for a great person, we have a great staff here, great
players and I'm just thrilled to be a part of the experience."