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Football: Ohio State defensive staff aligns to simplify scheme

Head coach Ryan Day talks into his headset in the first half of the 2019 Spring Game on April 13. Gray beat Scarlet 35-17. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

When the sun rose on new head coach Ryan Day’s tenure at Ohio State in January, intrigue swirled around what the first few days would bring.

Questions lingered about the assistants Day would bring in to coach his first team — questions he answered with a series of five hires, four on the defensive side of the football.

Now that they’ve been together for five months, the staff is looking to further align its vision for the 2019 Ohio State football team.

“If things don’t look good in the offseason, then you got a real problem,” Day said. “But I do feel like the staff is coming together. I do feel that there is camaraderie there, which I think really matters. I think your team feels that.”

Day’s initial vision included a combination of youth, experience, knowledge and energy in the staffroom. In January he stated his desire to hire two co-defensive coordinators: one to handle the secondary and one to handle the front seven, and he wanted it to fit that mold.

To accomplish this, he hired Greg Mattison of Michigan, who will be entering his 44th season coaching college football, and Jeff Hafley of the San Francisco 49ers. Mattison coordinates the front seven while Hafley handles the back end.

Linebackers coach Al Washington and secondary coach Matt Barnes round out the new hires while defensive line coach Larry Johnson remains the only familiar face.

“I think we have a good mix,” Day said. “We have a good mix of ages. We have a good mix of backgrounds.”

All join a team that they feel has great talent, and have aligned their vision over a simplified scheme.

“They’ve done a great job recruiting here,” Hafley said. “They’ve got good players, and I’m very grateful for that, and I’m excited to coach those guys. I can’t wait for training camp.”

When the staff members were piecing together the specifics of Ohio State’s revamped defense, there was an emphasis on utilizing the talent Hafley sees in his players.

“We want to let those guys play really fast,” Hafley said.

Hafley indicated that by simplifying the scheme the Buckeyes work on the defensive end, the coaches hope that the team’s best athletes can showcase their abilities.

“If we paralyze a guy because they have to think, we make him less of a player, then we’re not doing our job as coaches,” Hafley said.

One notable change from previous seasons is the new mindset Hafley brings to the defensive backfield.

For much of former coach Urban Meyer’s tenure, the Buckeyes stuck to a press-man coverage look on defense. First-round NFL Draft picks at corner such as Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley, Denzel Ward and Eli Apple allowed Ohio State to overpower opposing wide receivers with superior strength and speed.

However, teams started picking the scheme apart this past year, contributing to why Ohio State’s defense allowed the most yards per game in school history (403.4). Defenders are left one-on-one against key playmakers in space, and by utilizing simple underneath patterns such as slant or out routes, schools could pick apart the defense if they had somebody athletic enough.

Purdue freshman receiver Rondale Moore (12 receptions for 170 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State in 2018), Washington redshirt junior receiver Andre Baccellia (12 receptions for 109 yards) and Minnesota junior receiver Tyler Johnson (eight receptions, 119 yards) provide examples of this trend.

Hafley has decided to mix coverages this season.

“I think you have to mix things up. I think you have to give corners the ability to zone off, to play off the quarterback and try to go make some plays rather than just be in man all the time.”

Also new to Ohio State’s defense is the bullet position, a linebacker and safety hybrid meant to provide an extra cover man for a tight end or slot receiver while also defending the run.

Day and Hafley said the defensive staff is building chemistry well and uniting on the idea of a well rounded and easy-to-play scheme. And the athletes are taking notice.

“I think if you talk to our players right now, they’re excited too,” Day said. “Their relationships that they’re building with their coaches is really strong. This is the time of year to do that, because once the bullets start flying in September, it’s too late for that.”

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