COLUMBUS — Al Washington’s trip home to Ohio State included a few stops.
Slippery Rock. Elon. Boston College, Cincinnati. But none of them are were more important or generated more discussion than the biggest stop on the road home.
The big, year-long, maize-and-blue stint was the last before he finally could come back home.
The 34-year-old Washington, who was introduced as Ohio State’s new linebacker’s coach early in the offseason, came to Columbus, his childhood home, from Michigan, where he was the linebackers coach for a season under Jim Harbaugh.
So when new Ohio State coach Ryan Day was working to fill out his first coaching staff, he called Washington. The two coached together at Boston College earlier this decade, and they worked well together. Couple that with Washington’s ties to Ohio State and Columbus, and they were a perfect match.
It wasn’t that easy.
“It’s an adjustment, for sure,” Washington said at his introductory press conference in February. “Especially when you’re all-in. I’m not one of those half-foot-out kind of guys. I’m all-in.
“I have a ton of respect for the coaches and players there, so it’s a unique experience, to say the least, but I’m excited about where I am.”
Washington now inherits a room of linebackers that was highly criticized a season ago as the Buckeyes had one of they’re worst defenses in program history. The linebackers were at the epicenter.
When Washington got the Ohio State job, he was immediately tabbed as one of the architects to build and refurbish the defense to the Silver Bullets standard.
That starts with his linebackers.
Expectations are nothing new to him. His dad played at Ohio State. He played at Boston College. He knows about dealing with those.
Instead of re-inventing the wheel for the Buckeyes defense, he and new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are working to simplify everything and allow the unit to play fast. Washington believes that will pay off.
“What you can expect is an aggressive defense that’s going to play fast,” he said.
So far, so good. The linebackers seem to have Washington’s defensive scheme down and have worked on it since he got hired. Washington brings a high motor to practice, and players can feed off him. That’s how he operates.
“He’s very intense, and he’s helping us get better,” sophomore linebacker Teradja Mitchell said. “I definitely appreciate him. All the guys appreciate him.”
They might be able to appreciate him a bit more if the Buckeyes improve defensively. Ohio State gave up far too many explosive and long plays last season, by its standards. A defensive coaching overhaul was expected, and that’s what Day did when Urban Meyer retired.
Day found coaches from all angles of the country — even from Ohio State’s most hated rival — and brought them to recreate some defensive magic.
“I love coach Washington,” captain linebacker Tuf Borland said. “He’s a lot of energy, fiery guy. He’s going to bring it every day, and he’s going to get the best out of his players.”
Washington is still working through the first few months on the job. He hasn’t named any starters yet, and he’s said even Borland, a captain from a year ago, has a job to win at linebacker. Malik Harrison might be the only one to have a starting spot solidified. Washington will make every other linebacker earn the job. Harrison already has.
That’s one of the tougher decisions Washington will have to make.
But he’s made tough calls before. As the son of a former Ohio State football player, he coached at Michigan. That was tough.
Even tougher, though, was his choice to return home.
“It was tough, it was really tough, but if you think about where you are, this is home for me,” he said. “This is an unbelievable situation and program.”
Just five months on the job, Washington is making his new home look like he’s been there before.