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Football: Jeff Hafley takes Ryan Day’s defensive dream to heart

Ohio State co-defensive coordinator and secondaries coach Jeff Hafley speaks to the media for the first time on National Signing Day on Feb. 6. Credit: Colin Gay | Sports Editor

Coming into his third season, Ohio State junior cornerback Jeffrey Okudah will have his third different cornerbacks coach, working under Greg Schiano and Taver Johnson in his first and second year, respectively. As one of the older guys in the cornerback room, he said not having that level of consistency with his position coach has been “unfortunate.”

But that did not stop head coach Ryan Day from talking up the new secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, a defensive backs specialist, who has spent his past six seasons in the NFL.

“Coach Day told us, when he hired him, that he’d be one of the best coaches we have ever had,” Okudah said. “So far, it seems like it’s been the case.”

In his first spring with the Buckeyes, Hafley has taken to heart the goals Day set for the defense in his introductory press conference: creating a high-energy, yet simple defense.

With that in mind, Hafley combined the cornerbacks and safeties into one cohesive room, a room that would speak the same language, and one that would more effectively communicate and understand what is going on in the pass defense.

Instead of mastering one single position, Hafley aims for his players to understand the bigger picture.

“I want to teach these guys how to play the game,” Hafley said. “I don’t want them to just be pigeonholed into one position. I want them to play football and learn different positions because I think it will help us and I think it will help them in the future.”

This is something Hafley has been integrating with Matt Barnes, the assistant secondary coach, neither of whom focuses on a single position.

“From one individual period to the next, I have the corners, then I have the safeties, and I’m back with the corners,” Barnes said. “We are just bouncing around, it’s really by drill how we want to set it up.”  

So far, Hafley said this is something that his position group has bought into. He said the focus during the spring has primarily been on technique, learning the basics of the positions to create a fast yet sound secondary once fall comes.

Hafley feels as though the training and the drills now, even if defensive scheme is not the major part of it, help define the ceiling of his position group later.

“Spring is about creating a culture, playing with a great energy, and getting better at fundamentals and technique, which ultimately will win and lose you games,” Hafley said.

For Hafley, the center of the culture has been redshirt senior cornerback Damon Arnette.

From coaching the younger players in his room to jarring with redshirt senior wide receiver K.J. Hill after reps to punching junior wide receiver Jaylen Harris after a drill, Arnette has shown an ability to be a fiery leader in the room.

“I haven’t seen any down from him,” Hafley said. “I see a guy who is doing everything right on and off the field, I see a guy who is giving it all he has, guy in the meeting room who is awesome.”

Arnette is Hafley’s main example of the simplicity he expects, establishing a foundation for what he wants to become a fast defense that can consistently beat opposing offenses, but with a simple approach.

Okudah said that is all Ohio State needs with the names the Buckeyes have at both safety and cornerback.

“We are pretty talented enough to go out there and run basic things and just beat schools,” Okudah said. “If everyone is playing fast, the defense does not necessarily have to be complicated. You can just run simple things and just rely on speed and talent to beat teams.”

Hafley does not focus on the struggles from this past season: the complex secondary approach that led to the Buckeyes allowing 245.2 passing yards per game, fourth-worst in the Big Ten.

Instead, he looks at what could be, looking ahead at the talent and preparing them to be at their maximum potential by Aug. 31.

What will a simple, yet fast secondary bring to Ohio State next season? Hafley does not know yet, and he does not want to speculate.

“We will find out,” Hafley said.

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