COLUMBUS — The introductions are now out of the way for the first full coaching staff at Ohio State under Ryan Day.
And probably more important: The new leaders for the Buckeyes have already been hard at work on the recruiting trail and have started getting down to business during the brutal offseason conditioning program ahead of spring practice.
But it was certainly helpful to hear from the coaches themselves last week in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for a number of reasons — including just getting to see the personalities they’ll bring to the program. But it was also a glimpse at their philosophies, what they want to do schematically, how they view their roles and the way some key position battles might be handled.
Armed with a bit more information on the revamped coaching staff, Lettermen Row is looking ahead now at the biggest questions that will face the new group of assistants at Ohio State.
Where will his expertise be used most at Ohio State?
Ohio State has the market cornered on elite defensive line coaches now with Greg Mattison joining forces with Larry Johnson. And while the benefits of having both guys on the staff should be pretty obvious, that’s a position that doesn’t typically lend itself to needing two unit leaders. That could potentially allow Mattison to be a bit more of a floater as the co-defensive coordinator, perhaps allowing him to take a role overseeing the entire front seven from a bigger-picture perspective as Ohio State tweaks the way it uses linebackers. The Buckeyes certainly aren’t just going to squander all that knowledge of defensive line play Mattison brings with him from the other side of the rivalry, though.
“I’ve coached defensive line a long time, and I’m not going to say where I rank,” Mattison said. “It’s not my job to say that. But I did say to him, Larry, when you coach [defensive] line, there’s a lot of times on the practice field when there’s special teams, and the line is not really involved in that a lot. I said: Let me be your assistant. Put me wherever you want, I’ll coach whatever you want right there, and it’ll be two of us doing it.
“You know, I’ll be helping out wherever needed. I’ll be with the linebackers a lot.”
How will position battle break down for linebackers?
There is no unit with more to prove this season than the linebackers after two underwhelming seasons under Billy Davis, and the Buckeyes also have plenty of talent in reserve to get the position back to the level the program expects. All three starters from last season return, which is certainly useful for Al Washington as a foundation to begin the rebuild. But with no shortage of touted recruits pushing for playing time, including guys like Teradja Mitchell and Baron Browning, the Buckeyes might need to open up all three of those spots for competition. If nothing else, Ohio State needs to make sure that Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner are truly the best options.
“You’ve got to give the kids a chance to prove themselves to you during the spring,” Washington said. “So my take has always been to evaluate the body of work that you have. You look at some things about last year, and then consider what you’re doing this year. And then give them a chance to show you if they can execute and do the things that you need them to do.
“We’ll get the right pieces in the right places, I’m confident.”
How will quarterback derby work in spring?
Based purely on the recruiting rankings, the job would clearly belong to Justin Fields. But that certainly won’t be how Ohio State goes about naming the next guy in line to lead the offense after the record-setting season Dwayne Haskins delivered at quarterback last year, and Matthew Baldwin is absolutely a candidate for that role as well. So, the anticipated three-man race fizzled out quickly with Tate Martell jetting off to Miami, but Ohio State will still have a decision to make and a head-to-head competition to organize. Will Fields and Baldwin take turns with the first-team offense this spring? How will the reps be structured, monitored and then evaluated? Do the Buckeyes want to have a decision coming out of April?
“The film that I’ve looked at, I think [Fields] is very dynamic — but he hasn’t practiced one snap with us,” new quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich said. “So I’m not going to give any evaluations, because it would be unfair for me to go on one particular player and not the other. So I’d be more than happy to answer that question as spring ball progresses.
“It takes a lot of time, and you can’t just jump into a situation and pretend that you know everything about everybody. It takes a lot of time and investment.”
How much press-man coverage will Ohio State play?
The previous defensive staff was intent on playing as much press-man coverage as possible. And while it worked just fine when Ohio State had multiple first-round draft picks in the secondary, that stubborn approach became a problem when the annual attrition at cornerback and safety caught up with the program last year. The Buckeyes are again in solid shape when it comes to the personnel that co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley inherits, but it’s what he does schematically and potentially with his flexibility that might determine how much improvement the Silver Bullets make this season.
“I think spending the last seven years in the NFL I watched a lot of these guys,” Hafley said. “I’ve studied them as I got ready for the draft and the combine, and I’ve watched them play press and they’ve done a great job. They’ve been coached well and they’ve obviously been very talented. I’m a big believer in playing press, but I also believe you have to change it up.
“So we’ll be some press, we’ll be some off, we’ll be a little bit of everything. But it’s a good question because I know how much they’ve pressed here. But we’ll continue to do some of that, and we’ll do some other stuff, as well.”
Can special teams success continue for Buckeyes?
The last guy who was effectively in charge on special teams had a pretty impressive resumé, and Urban Meyer leaves some pretty big shoes for Matt Barnes to fill. Meyer, of course, wasn’t specifically designated as the special teams coordinator the way Barnes is now with Ohio State, and it will be interesting to see how the newcomer handles the kicking game given the importance that was placed on it by the previous regime. The Buckeyes have used that as a proving ground of sorts for young talent to earn playing time, but Barnes also wants the best players to be on the field for him. It could be a delicate balance as he tries to continue the tradition in that phase of the game.
“Just trying to continue to develop and continue to cultivate the importance of special teams, which has been phenomenal here,” Barnes said. “It’s been done at the highest level here. So that’s already in place. So just continuing to develop that is a big part of it.
“Keeping in mind we’re going to play our best players on special teams, and I think the thing that I hope to maybe shed a little bit more light on or bring to the forefront a little bit more is — it’s really not just special teams. When you’re teaching the kicking game, obviously the things that the punters, the kickers, the holders and the snappers, the specialists do are a little bit different. But beyond that, it’s really just general fundamentals of playing the game of football.”
For full video interviews with all of the new Ohio State assistants, get caught up on the Lettermen Row YouTube channel.