Of all the hires Ryan Day made as Ohio State’s football coach, perhaps the most surprising was poaching Greg Mattison from Michigan.
Mattison coached in Ann Arbor for 13 seasons. At 69 years old, retirement seemed more likely than joining the Wolverines’ arch-rival to share defensive coordinator duties with Jeff Hafley.
Yet Mattison has been energized by the challenge of helping to fix an Ohio State defense that was the worst, statistically, in school history.
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Except Mattison doesn’t quite see it that way, at least the need to overhaul the defense. He hasn’t dwelled on the 25.5 points per game, 403.4 yards per game or 5.8 yards per play that the Buckeyes allowed last year, all setting unwanted records.
He points to Ohio State’s overall record in 2018, which included the 62-39 humbling of the Wolverines, as proof that not all is broken.
“Thirteen and 1,” he said earlier this month, repeating it for emphasis. “I don’t look at stats. I don’t look at what were you ranked. A team is made up of three things — offense, defense and kicking game — 13-1.”
That belief was bolstered by what he saw during spring practice — a talented and deep unit that’s hungry to show that last year’s breakdowns were an aberration.
Mattison has been careful not to dissect publicly what went wrong last year. He wasn’t here and his focus is on the present and future, not the past.
Mattison also doesn’t want to be regarded as a guru with all the answers. He takes the title of his job literally.
“A coordinator, to me, has never been a guy that comes in and says, ‘We’re doing to do this, this, this, this, this. Listen to me and let’s do it,’ ” Mattison said. “A coordinator is a guy who coordinates other people’s ideas and other ways of doing things. Being a co-coordinator with Jeff, that’s what we do. We’re very fortunate to have such a good staff.”
Mattison raved about the chemistry that has developed among the coaches. Mattison’s background is largely with defensive linemen, and he's excited about working with line coach Larry Johnson, who’s regarded as one of the best in the country. He worked with linebackers coach Al Washington in Ann Arbor and will himself work with the strongside linebackers this season. Hafley and Matt Barnes will coach the secondary.
The Buckeyes often looked tentative and out of position on defense last year. Mattison said the goal is to get the 11 best players on the field and let them use their speed and natural ability without overloading them mentally.
“I feel personally we’ve got very talented players,” he said. “Let’s let them play.”
Johnson is the only holdover on the defensive staff, but Mattison said the meshing among the coaches has gone smoothly.
“Everybody wants this to be the best defense it’s ever been, and you’re all working together on it,” he said. “The thing I’m so proud of is there aren’t egos. It’s all about Ohio State. It’s all about our defense. It’s all about how good could we make this defense, and that’s every guy in that room. I said to my wife after I was here for a while, ‘Man, this is a great defensive staff, and these are guys you really enjoy coming to work with every day.’ ”