Coming off a ragged 2013 season for the defense, especially the last three games, it was natural to assume that Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell might have been fearing for his job.
Except he wasn’t.
In his first interview since the season ended with a shootout win over Michigan and losses to Michigan State in Big Ten championship game and to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Fickell spoke yesterday of the approach of keeping it simple and challenging his players this spring.
He also said he was embracing the input of the two new assistants on defense. Chris Ash is the new co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach, tasked by coach Urban Meyer with shoring up the pass defense. And Larry Johnson is onboard as defensive line coach after 18 seasons at Penn State.
As for whether he thought his job was in jeopardy, Fickell indicated he never dwelled on it. A Columbus native and former nose guard for the Buckeyes, Fickell has been on staff at Ohio State since 2002, serving as an assistant under Jim Tressel and as head coach for one season in 2011 after Tressel was forced to resign before being retained by Meyer.
“The reality is, you go on battling. If it happens, it happens. … But what are you going to do, live your life worried about everything?” Fickell said. “What would that do for you? You know what, you’re confident in what you do, you believe in what you do. If that’s what the plan is, that’s what the plan is.
“I want what’s best for this place. Coach Meyer knows that. We’ve talked about that from day one. If something is better for this place, then so be it. … But obviously we’ve got enough confidence in what we do. You don’t look at just one single stat. I know you keep dwelling upon it and everybody keeps dwelling upon it. But the reality is this is a team game.”
Fickell referred to football as “the best sport known to man” because of the team aspect.
“Some of the examples we set for our guys are some of the examples we want to live our life by,” Fickell said. “You can’t worry. Just because there was a bombing in the World Trade Center a few years ago, you never want to fly again? What are you going to do?
“I know it’s comparing two different things, but the reality is, hey, you’ve got to have confidence in what you do, believe in what you do, and whatever happens, happens.”
Being open to change is part of it, he said, and the recent defensive staff meetings have brought that. Besides Fickell, the only returning defensive assistant is Kerry Coombs, who coaches cornerbacks in addition to being special teams coordinator.
Johnson was a long-time assistant at Penn State, serving under Joe Paterno and Bill O’Brien. And Ash came to Ohio State after coaching at Arkansas and Wisconsin, working at both schools under Bret Bielema.
“For me, it brings the ability to broaden yourself,” Fickell said. “You’ve done things a certain way for a long time … and if you really look back at it, here at Ohio State we’ve probably played every kind of defense, every style of defense. We’ve tweaked and turned in 12 years here. But (Ash) brings a different perspective with things he did, whether it was in the SEC or at Wisconsin.
“Just like having Larry. You’ve got a sense of a guy that obviously has done it for a long time and brings some confidence and some calmness to your room. But I think the thing is how the four of us mesh together. … I think that’s the most exciting thing I’ve had probably in the last four or five weeks.”
Senior linebacker Curtis Grant said the coaches have simplified the defense so that “we’re into people’s faces and we’re just trying to get to the ball.”
It’s a new beginning, coming off a season in which the players and the defensive coaches seemed to lose confidence near the end.
“That’s where it’s got to start … the idea is to go back and simplify things,” Fickell said. “We’ve going to have a lot of young guys, and (this) will let them play fast.”