Chris Ash isn’t stuck in his ways.
Ohio State’s new co-defensive coordinator also isn’t stuck on any one player he has inherited in the defensive backfield, his area of expertise, as the Buckeyes prepare to open spring practice on Tuesday. As far as Ash is concerned, the ills that bothered OSU’s pass defense in 2013 are for others to rehash.
“I’m not concerned about what’s happened here in the past,” said Ash, who was the defensive coordinator at Arkansas last season. “I’m more concerned about the direction we’re going to go and how we get the players aligned to what our vision is going to be, and that we get better.”
Ash also made a pledge: “We will put the best players on this football field that will help us win, and we will give everybody an ample opportunity to show that they can do that.”
Truth is, he was going to have to do that anyway in the secondary, where he inherits only one full-time returning starter, cornerback Doran Grant. Among the defensive backs, only four have started — Grant (15), nickel back Tyvis Powell (five), cornerback Armani Reeves (three) and safety Vonn Bell (one).
But cornerbacks Eli Apple and Gareon Conley and safeties Ron Tanner, Cam Burrows and Chris Worley are going to get serious looks, as will incoming freshmen Damon Webb, Marshon Lattimore, Erick Smith and Malik Hooker.
As for Ash being “not concerned” with what went on with the Buckeyes’ pass defense last season, such an attitude is why coach Urban Meyer picked Ash to replace Everett Withers, who became coach at James Madison. Before serving as coordinator last season under Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Ash spent the previous three seasons running the defense for Bielema at Wisconsin.
“He’s got a serious responsibility, and that’s to improve our pass defense,” Meyer said. “He’ll be in charge of the entire back end of our defense.”
Ash will work closely with the safeties and the cornerbacks; special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs also will continue to work with the corners.
“However, we will have one voice back there (Ash’s), and that’s his responsibility to improve our pass defense,” Meyer said. “You’re going to see some significant changes in the way we approach our business back there.”
In 2013, Ohio State was 110th nationally in passing yards allowed (an average of 268) and gave up 31 touchdown passes. In the last half of the season in general and in the final three games specifically — a narrow win at Michigan, a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and a loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl — opponents threw on the Buckeyes almost at will.
It was a passive pass defense that fostered disgust from Meyer, who urged coaches and players to be more aggressive in their approach.
Whether he planned to make coaching changes in the offseason became moot with the departure of Withers and defensive line coach Mike Vrabel to the NFL’s Houston Texans. Meyer took the opportunity to stir up the staff, hiring Larry Johnson from Penn State to take charge of the defensive line, which mostly played well under Vrabel.
But the scheme promises to be most affected by Ash.
“If you ask me what one of my strengths is, I’m a student of the game,” Ash said. “I study football year-round. I’m relentless in my pursuit to identify new ideas that can help me become better, as long as they fit what we try to do defensively. I’m not going to go out and grab this blitz, this coverage, this whatever if it doesn’t fit our personnel or our philosophy.”
Ash has a reputation for pushing press coverage and at times causing chaos for the offense by deploying unconventional looks. But conventional soundness, he said, is always at the heart of it all.
“We’re going to align (correctly) and we’re going to play great technique, great effort and good fundamentals. We’ve got to get that done,” Ash said. “But we also have to understand we’ve got to create issues for an offense. We’ve got to create problems and put pressure on the quarterback. We have to make sure in our package we can do that.
“And then when you get to third down, you’ve got to create confusion, and we’re going to do that. Those are the things that I think are important.”
Entering spring practice on Tuesday, the Buckeyes not only are seeking three new starters in the secondary under new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, but they also are looking for a more aggressive approach to pass defense. Here is the DB personnel file (with eligibility for next season):
• CB Doran Grant (senior): Grant, above, was a first-year starter in 2013.
• S Tyvis Powell (sophomore): Was the regular nickel back last season.
• S Vonn Bell (sophomore): Bell, right, made his first start in the Orange Bowl.
• CB Armani Reeves (junior): Started the first two games last season, and in the Orange Bowl in place of injured Bradley Roby.
• S Cam Burrows (sophomore): Was a backup cornerback last year but has moved to safety this spring.
• S Ron Tanner (junior): Was a special teams standout in 2013 and a backup safety.
Players to watch this spring
• CB Gareon Conley (redshirt freshman): Coach Urban Meyer said Conley “should have played” last year.
• CB Eli Apple (redshirt freshman): Considered among elite CB prospects nationally in the 2013 class.
• S Chris Worley (redshirt freshman): Made a splash at the beginning of camp last season, then was redshirted.
• S Jayme Thompson (redshirt freshman): Suffered a leg injury in 2013 preseason camp but has recovered.
Freshmen on the way
CB Damon Webb
CB Marshon Lattimore
S Erick Smith
S Malik Hooker
— Tim May