Greg Mattison feels a lot better about working with the Ohio State defense now than he did on the first day of spring practice.
Mattison, the Buckeyes’ co-coordinator with Jeff Hafley, was the only defensive coach without a specific position group. That was a first for the 69-year-old coach, and not a desired one.
“I almost went crazy,” the former Michigan assistant said Wednesday. “It had been the first year I’d never coached a position, and I was going, ‘No, I can't do this.’”
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He knew he needed to be more hands-on, so he began working with the strong-side linebackers.
“It keeps you connected,” Mattison said. “It keeps you sane.”
Ohio State’s linebacker play was one of the major culprits in last season’s defensive struggles, but Mattison raves about that unit.
Pete Werner plays on the strong side, so Mattison works directly with him.
“I really believe he is a top guy at his position,” Mattison said. “I've had the opportunity to see a lot of pretty good football players, and I am really impressed with him.
"He plays extremely hard. He's very physical. He's got great size and strength, and he can run, and he's got unbelievable character.”
Mattison was also effusive about middle linebacker Tuf Borland, who was not at full strength for most of the 2018 season after returning from an Achilles injury, and is facing a challenge from Baron Browning and Teradja Mitchell.
“I like everything about Tuf Borland's game,” Mattison said. “He takes great pride in getting the front (four) lined up. … I like his physicality. I like his intelligence.”
But Mattison stopped short of saying that Werner and Borland had clinched starting spots. He also heaped praise on Browning, Mitchell, K’Vaughan Pope and Dallas Gant, among others.
“We won't talk about the starters until we get close to that game,” he said. “In our opinion, anybody that is doing well could be a starter. With the tempo we're going to see, with the way teams are going to try to attack us, we'd better have a first starter or a second starter and a third starter.”
Mattison is working with a familiar linebackers coach in Al Washington, who joined him in leaving Ann Arbor for Columbus. Hafley and assistant secondary coach Matt Barnes are also new. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson is the only defensive holdover.
“Jeff and I work really, really well together, and the big thing is, there are no egos,” Mattison said. “Our deal is to try to make this defense the best we can.”
Mattison had no interest in dissecting last year’s problems. The Buckeyes went 13-1, so the defense must have done something right, he reasoned.
Coach Ryan Day likes what Mattison has brought to the defense.
“I think his experience is critical for us,” he said. “It's making sure that fundamentally we're sound, that we fit the runs correctly, that the back end is fitting in with the front end, that we're pursuing to the ball, and that our fundamentals are really, really strong. That's something he's preached for a long, long time, and he's done a really good job of that since he's been here.”
Mattison simply wants the Ohio State defense to play to its ability level. He vowed that players will swarm to the ball and that he and the other coaches will fix breakdowns when they arise.
“We are very, very talented,” Mattison said. “Sometimes when you have a very, very talented team, you as a coach say, ‘Go!’ You don't try to invent things. You don't try to make it too complicated.
"I am really, really excited right now about what our kids are doing on defense. It's our job to get them to play up to the standard (expected), and that's to be the best there is, and that's Ohio State football.”