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What We Learned as Ohio State assistants deal with unique offseason

Kerry Coombs-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State coach Kerry Coombs is looking for ways to compete at home. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

What We Learned as Ohio State assistants deal with unique offseason

COLUMBUS — Kerry Coombs can’t go into the office at Ohio State, so he needed another competitive outlet.

The special delivery arrived on Tuesday. And it’s safe to assume that some heated games of table tennis are about to break out for the Buckeyes defensive coordinator at home.

A new ping-pong table is just one of the ways the Buckeyes coaching staff is staying busy during the quarantine — at least when they aren’t recruiting, joining Zoom meetings or keeping in touch however they can with their position groups.

“You know, I’m absolutely climbing the walls,” Coombs said during a media teleconference on Wednesday. “I’m not going to tell you that I’m not. It’s just one of those things you can’t control, but it’s not something that’s pleasant for me.

“Personally, in my house sitting for a month, I can’t even begin to describe it to you. My poor wife … I went and picked up a ping-pong table yesterday. I said: ‘We’ve got to compete somehow, honey. We’ve got to find something we can do.’ So, we’re going to go play ping-pong, it just is what it is.”

Of course, the famously intense Coombs also is finding more to do for his day job, including extra hours spent watching film and evaluating recruits. But he’s certainly got more time on his hands than he planned when returned from the NFL ranks to take over the Buckeyes defense, and he’s got to channel that energy somewhere.

What else are the Ohio State assistants up to right now? What did the Buckeyes learn during those three spring practices before Covid-19 shut down camp? Who are some players to keep an eye on when the program gets back to work? Here are some early Lettermen Row takeaways from the two-hour media session — with more coverage to come in the days ahead.

Greg Studrawa-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State offensive line coach Greg Studrawa was encouraged by the three March practices. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Right tackle job still getting Ohio State attention

From Practice One, it was clear that Ohio State had multiple options available to fill the open starting job at right tackle and that it wouldn’t rush to anoint Nicholas Petit-Frere as the next in line.

Early enrollee Paris Johnson was rotating in with the first-string unit at times during the first workout, a sign of how much confidence there is in the five-star freshman. And while Dawand Jones was primarily working as the backup on the left side, he was also flashing as a potential option to push Petit-Frere on the other side if need be. That was just a teaser for offensive line coach Greg Studrawa, who is perhaps now even more excited to see those tackles battle to replace Branden Bowen.

“I tell you, the first three days of spring practice were unbelievable to see those guys go out there and compete,” Studrawa said. “It’s going to take somebody who wants to go out there and grab that position by the you-kn0w-what and say that they want it. Because I would have liked to see Dawand — and even Nick, he’s played a little bit for us and he’s been in some games and has a little more experience.

“But what I saw out of Dawand and Paris, two young guys in three days of spring practice, I couldn’t believe how far Dawand has come and how advanced and mature Paris is for a freshman. Who is going to buy in, who is going to do what it takes, who is going to grab that spot? I believe all three of them are capable. It’s going to be fun to see them work.”

Buckeyes expecting deep rotation in secondary

Based on his previous run with the Buckeyes and the success he had rolling multiple cornerbacks through the lineup, it should come as no surprise that Kerry Coombs envisions using the same approach in his return to the program.

Perhaps that might have seemed more difficult or less likely considering all of the talent the Buckeyes lost that’s heading to the NFL Draft this week, seemingly stretching the depth and putting a lot of pressure on relatively unproved defensive backs. But even an abbreviated camp without all of his options healthy gave Coombs confidence that he has more than enough to work with in the secondary, and he rattled off half a dozen names he expects to contribute this year — without even mentioning returning star Shaun Wade.

“I think there’s a lot of them that are going to have bigger roles, right?” Coombs said. “You lost three starters, so we would have every expectation that every one of those kids that was competing at the frontend of spring, Sevyn Banks and Cam Brown and Marcus Hooker, Josh Proctor, Marcus Williamson and Tyreke Johnson, they’re all going to have bigger roles. I have every expectation of getting a lot of guys on the field, and I think it’s a talented group of players.

“They’re just inexperienced, but I expect a lot of those guys are going to get ready to go compete and play in the fall.”

Brian Hartline-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State wide receivers coach Brian Hartline ideally wanted more time with his freshmen. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Freshmen wideouts staying engaged with Ohio State

The arrival of perhaps the most decorated signing class of wide receivers in school history was met with plenty of fanfare, and the first couple days of practice provided some glimpses that suggested it wouldn’t take long for the fabulous foursome to live up to the sky-high expectations.

Position coach Brian Hartline is usually quick to pump the brakes on that kind of hype, and he was again on Wednesday since he’s only had a limited amount of time to work with Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Mookie Cooper and Gee Scott. But thanks to the remote learning and as much communication as NCAA rules allow during this time period, Hartline has still had a chance to monitor the work ethic of those guys — and that’s matching up with the recruiting rankings.

“We definitely are missing out, in my opinion,” Hartline said. “But they have been recruited because of the way they carry themselves and the accountability that they operate with and their great families — there’s a lot that goes into that. It’s not ideal, but I think at a time like this, we’re just going to have a relative approach. Our goal is to improve as much as we can day in and day out, and we’re really just trying to stay in contact. Right now they can’t do a whole lot, they have finals and that kind of stuff. But the mindset is to do better than our peers, do better than our opponents and really make sure that it’s still a myself-versus-myself mentality.

“We’re just trying to adjust. Those that adjust the best, whether that’s on the field or off the field, are going to be the most successful. We’d love to be together, but we’re doing the best we can with this situation.”

Marcus Crowley, Master Teague rehabs on schedule

The shutdown is clearly not ideal for injured Buckeyes. But guys in Columbus can still receive medical attention at the Crane Sports Medicine Institute, receive rehabilitation tips from the training staff and input from the strength coaches, which is at least enough to keep running backs Marcus Crowley and Master Teague on track in their recoveries.

Position coach Tony Alford is obviously keeping tabs on that situation, though he didn’t go into any details about the exact timeline for those rushers expected to compete for the starting job this season. Lettermen Row sources have indicated that Teague’s Achilles tear is likely to keep him out at least through the scheduled completion of training camp and potentially longer, but Crowley was expected to be cleared for activity after his ACL injury this summer.

“[Watching] as closely as I can,” Alford said. “We have an amazing training staff, our doctors are second to none. So, I go off what they tell me.

“From all indications, they’re both doing well in rehab. They’re attacking this thing the way that we want them to and we would expect them to. I’m kind of at their mercy. As far as the medical staff, they’ll tell me when they’re ready and let Coach Day know what we’ve got. From all indicators, they’re doing a nice job and they’re on schedule.”

Larry Johnson-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson will be watching the guys on the interior. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Defensive tackle is key to Larry Johnson

The pass rush from the ends is going to be just fine, even without Chase Young back to anchor the unit.

Odds are, the Buckeyes are going to be dangerous on the interior again as well. But there is a lot more work to be done at defensive tackle as Ohio State tries to replace three productive seniors, and that’s an area that clearly has the attention of Larry Johnson as he waits to get back to work.

“I think the inside guys are the biggest key,” Johnson said. “Looking at Haskell Garrett, Tommy Togiai, Taron Vincent, Jerron Cage, Antwuan Jackson — those are the guys on the inside who have to really step up. As we were going through the three days of practice, I thought those guys were on the right track to be able to contribute in the fall.”

Austin Ward

Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.