Ohio State football: Chris Ash arrives intent on repairing defense

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Chris Ash wasn’t looking for a new job.

He was happy as the defensive coordinator at Arkansas, eager to help coach Bret Bielema rebuild a Razorbacks program that went winless in Southeastern Conference play in 2013.

So when Urban Meyer called Ash a few weeks ago to ask about his interest in Ohio State’s vacant co-defensive coordinator/safeties job, Ash was surprised and flattered.

“It’s one of the top-five football jobs in the country, in my opinion,” said Ash, whose hiring was officially announced on Thursday.

Ash will be under defensive coordinator Luke Fickell on the organizational chart, but it’s also clear why Ash was hired. Ohio State’s pass defense was often abysmal last season, ranking 110th of 123 teams nationally in passing yardage allowed. The Buckeyes surrendered 1,133 yards and 12 touchdowns through the air in their last three games, which included losses to Michigan State and Clemson.

Immediately after the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, Meyer vowed to fix the problem. Those who know Ash best say he is ideal for the task.

“I think that defense needs some more soundness,” said Chuck Long, a Big Ten Network analyst who had Ash on his staff when he was coach at San Diego State in 2007 and ’08. “It caught up to them. Chris is that guy (to fix it). Chris is that fit.”

Keep it simple

Ash, 40, has earned some recognition with a series of videos he did on defensive strategy and fundamentals, but fans shouldn’t expect him to make his mark with a bunch of exotic blitzes and schemes.

“My overall defensive philosophy is about simplicity and effort and fundamentals and belief in what you’re doing,” Ash said. “As a position coach, it’s all about the details and all about being a really good teacher.”

The best coaches are the ones who can transfer their knowledge to their players so that players know their responsibilities so well that they play without hesitation. The foundation for that, Ash believes, is to develop a strong relationship with his players.

“They have to know you care about them,” Ash said. “But I’m not their friend. I don’t care if they like me or not. They’re going to respect me because of the way I teach them and help them improve to reach their full potential.

“Am I going to get after them? Absolutely. I’m going to hold them accountable. I’m going to be demanding on the details, and they’re going to get better because of that.”

Aaron Henry was an all-Big Ten defensive back for Wisconsin in 2011 under Ash. It wasn’t always a smooth ride, he said, but it was fulfilling.

“We bumped heads several times,” said Henry, a graduate assistant at Arkansas. “He’s a pretty headstrong guy, and so am I. But you have that relationship and you build that rapport with somebody to where you really trust him.

“He’s one of those guys who you want to run through a wall for. I really tip my hat to him. Ohio State is getting a heck of a coach.”

Second chance

Ash grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa, home of the Radar O’Reilly character from the television series M*A*S*H and comedian Tom Arnold. Like many smaller Midwestern communities, the city of 25,000 has seen better days.

“It’s a tough river town,” said Tom Kopatich, who was Ottumwa High School’s football coach when Ash went there.

Ash’s parents divorced when he was young. He hardly lived a life of luxury.

“My parents both worked hard to get everything they had, and they passed that on to me,” he said.

Ash loved sports, but he wasn’t always the most responsible kid. In high school, he almost got dismissed from the football team. Ash and Kopatich were vague about the transgression, other than to say it was mischief rather than something illegal.

“A bunch of small-town boys running around and trying to find things to do, and we found the wrong things to do,” Ash said. “Life is about choices. At that time, I didn’t quite understand the consequences that came with negative choices.”

Kopatich had to be talked into not kicking Ash off the team before deciding to suspend him for the first six games of his junior season and make him work his way back into his good graces.

“It was a situation where we gave him a second chance. He had a chance to go one way or the other, and he chose the right path,” said Kopatich, who remains close with Ash. “It’s really a success story. It’s a story I tell the other kids here.”

Ash is grateful.

“I’m thankful I had people early in my life who gave me those second chances,” he said.

Solid work ethic

Ash worked his way through college at Drake, in Des Moines, Iowa, as a nonscholarship defensive back.

“I’ve been a paper-route guy, detasseled corn, painted houses, been a high-school baseball umpire, washed dishes at a restaurant, tarred driveways,” Ash said. “You name it, I’ve done it.”

But even before a knee injury cut short his playing career, he decided he wanted to be a coach. He volunteered to cut up game film and would scrounge up money to buy coaching manuals and attend coaching clinics. He became a graduate assistant at Drake and began the climb up the coaching ladder. Perhaps his biggest mentor was Dan McCarney, who hired him at Iowa State in 2000.

“You saw him each day, each week, each month, each year grow and blossom and mature,” said McCarney, now the coach at North Texas. “You knew you had something really special with Chris Ash.”

McCarney was Meyer’s defensive line coach for three years at Florida. He said Ash and Meyer have a similar work ethic. Ash spent so much time at the office that McCarney sometimes had to kick him out.

Long hired Ash at San Diego State at the suggestion of defensive coordinator Bob Elliott, a fellow Iowan. Although Long didn’t know Ash, he quickly became impressed.

“He just knew how everything fit,” Long said. “You could tell he was well-versed in the entire defensive philosophy and not just the secondary. He knew everything from point A to point Z — secondary play, technique, fundamentals and eye discipline, and how it should fit with the front seven.”

After another stop at Iowa State, Ash became defensive coordinator at Wisconsin under Bielema. In 2011 and 2012, the Badgers ranked 15th nationally in total defense.

“If you study Wisconsin’s defense and everywhere he’s been, they’re going to be very sound with what they do,” Long said. “They’re not going to be helter-skelter and get out of their gaps with a lot of crazy blitzes.

“He’s a good fit because at Ohio State, with their athletic ability and the way they can run, they don’t have to do a lot of crazy things to get the edge. You can be simple and be gap-secure and let your guys play fast.”

Ash said he and Fickell already have started meshing. He said he’s unconcerned about who makes the final call for the defense.

“Luke is a first-class guy, very sharp,” Ash said. “We’re getting to know each other every single day. Chemistry in the room is important to me, and I know it is to him.”

What matters most is having everybody in alignment — coaches and players — and getting the results on the field that were lacking last season.

“I’m excited for Chris and Urban,” McCarney said. “I know exactly what they’ll bring to each other. I think there will be some pretty magical times.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

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