In an effort to overhaul the flagging Ohio State defense, Urban Meyer performed the football equivalent of a shotgun wedding with his coaching staff, and then opted to ride chaperone to make sure bliss and blitzes ensued.
He kept Luke Fickell at defensive coordinator for a third season but brought in Chris Ash from Arkansas as co-coordinator with orders to turn the Buckeyes into a more aggressive, simpler unit that conceivably will be much improved against the pass.
Not that Meyer had to explain to Fickell that change was needed.
“He knew,” Meyer said. “He’s a very smart person, he loves Ohio State, he’s a very good football coach. The pass defense was not very good, so we’re going to start thinking from the back forward instead of the forward back.”
Reporters might hear that from Meyer quite a few times the next two days during the media interview sessions as part of the Big Ten kickoff festivities in Chicago. Even though the Buckeyes are again picked to win the Big Ten — at least according to a recent Cleveland.com poll of media members who cover the league — questions remain about a pass-slashed defense that finally caught up to the team in losses to Michigan State in the conference title game and to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
So Meyer put Fickell and Ash with cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs and new defensive line coach Larry Johnson — a longtime assistant for Penn State — and told them to make it happen.
“I’ve sat in on almost all the meetings, and one thing about our coaches is, there is not an ego situation in there,” Meyer said. “All four are experienced enough to call a defense … so we have four coordinator-type minds in there. I think my presence helps because I need to be very clear about what to expect.”
Far from being a combative group, Fickell and Ash said they have gotten along swimmingly through spring drills and the summer headed toward the opening of preseason camp on Sunday.
“I think the (jelling) of the whole defensive staff is something that’s real important,” Fickell said. “Obviously, the relationship between Chris and myself is big, but the relationship between Chris and Kerry (Coombs) is huge, and the relationship between Larry (Johnson) and me and the rest of the group is huge.
“You know, we talk about 18- to 22-year-olds being challenged, but coaches have been challenged, too, grown men, and we need to adapt and adjust. And I think this has really been good. I love the chemistry, we continue to grow and build, and I really feel a difference.”
Ash said he, too, has enjoyed the cohesiveness.
“Luke is a great person, he really is. He’s got no ego,” said Ash, who replaced Everett Withers, who left after last season to become the head coach at James Madison. “He’s a diehard Buckeye. When you think about Ohio State, at least right now, one of the names you think of is Luke Fickell. He’s been around there as a player, as a coach, he was the head coach at one point (during the tumultuous 2011 season following the resignation of Jim Tressel).
“He loves Ohio State, and he wants what’s best for this program. At the end of the day, he knew that things had to change on defense, that the defense needed to get better. He just wants to see Ohio State have success.”
Simplification, aggression and pressure now are at the core of the OSU approach.
“It is much more my personality,” Fickell said.
He was a high-school All-American wrestler at DeSales and a four-year star at nose guard for the Buckeyes in the mid-1990s. But as Fickell made his way up the coaching ladder working under coordinators Mark Dantonio (now the head coach at Michigan State), Mark Snyder (now the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M), and Jim Heacock (retired), he was immersed in slightly less aggressive approaches up front and usually softer-but-safe pass-coverage schemes.
Since being named coordinator upon Meyer’s hiring in 2012, Fickell said he had wanted to move much more toward the aggressive side, “but I didn’t know enough about it to make a wholesale change.”
Enter Ash, who had impressed Meyer with what he had done at Wisconsin before following coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas as coordinator last season. Proof that things were changing dramatically came in the spring, when the Buckeyes instituted press coverage more often than not, especially with the cornerbacks, and got after it up front with a variety of blitzes.
“At the end of the day, Coach Meyer doesn’t really care if you’re a 4-3 (scheme), a 3-4, or anything like that,” Ash said. “He wants a defense that plays relentless and plays fast and challenges everything. That’s what we’re trying to build. We’re going to challenge the wideouts, we’re going to challenge the quarterback, the run game, the pass game.”
Ash is singing Meyer’s song.
“I like the fact we’re a challenging defense,” Meyer said. “Our goal is to challenge every throw.”
But what gives him an indication that it’s going to be better?
“It starts with personnel. We are very athletic in the back end,” Meyer said. “Run defense, we’ve been good the last two years. Pass defense, it was not good, and then really bad.”
Really, it can only improve, considering the Buckeyes finished 110th in passing yards allowed (268 yards per game) last season out of 123 teams in Football Bowl Subdivision.
“If you don’t get better as the season goes along and play your best ball at the end of the year, it’s magnified, especially when you’re playing for championships,” Fickell said. “The truth is we did not get better through the season. And that’s not just on the pass coverage, or on the linebackers, or on the defensive line.
“It’s on us as a whole. Hey, you’ve got to get better, and you’ve got to play your best at the end of the year.”