Rob Oller | Adding NFL assistants to staff helps Ryan Day keep talented players coming to Ohio State

Rob Oller
Kerry Coombs, who spent six seasons as an assistant at Ohio State, is expected to return to become co-defensive coordinator. [Barbara J. Perenic/Dispatch]

One way for Ohio State to balance losing player talent to the NFL is to bring NFL coaching talent to Ohio State. And coach Ryan Day is doing just that.

Day plucked Jeff Hafley from the NFL last January to co-coordinate the defense, and the results were fairly spectacular as the Buckeyes went from being Rubber Bullets in 2018 to again performing like Silver Bullets this season. The defense ranked No. 1 nationally in fewest yards allowed per game (259.7).

Sources anticipate Day soon will add another NFL coach to his staff by hiring secondary coach Kerry Coombs away from the Tennessee Titans to co-coordinate the defense. One source suggested recruits are being assured, but not guaranteed, that Coombs is coming to Columbus.

Coombs spent six seasons at Ohio State (2012-17) before leaving for the Titans, who rank third in NFL pass defense. He successfully recruited and developed defensive backs for the Buckeyes, including Denzel Ward, Marshon Lattimore, Eli Apple, Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley — all first-round draft picks.

Though not officially a done deal — the process was prolonged when the Titans upset New England in the playoffs last weekend — Coombs would return to Ohio State for a chance to orchestrate the defense and oversee the secondary. As co-coordinator with Greg Mattison, Coombs would elevate his chances of someday becoming a head coach — if that's what he wants, and most assistants want at least one crack at running their own program.

But hiring Coombs would not be Day just tossing a bone so a former colleague can pad his resume (the two worked under Urban Meyer in 2017). It also would be a strategic move by a former NFL quarterbacks coach — Day held that position in Philadelphia and San Francisco — who understands that a large part of recruiting is convincing incoming players they will be sufficiently developed for the NFL.

Recruiting tracker Bill Kurelic of Bucknuts has dealt with high school players long enough to know they are attracted to college programs with former NFL coaches on the staff.

“I can tell you factually the defensive backs that Ohio State was recruiting with Jeff Hafley on board were impressed that Ryan Day was able to get an NFL defensive backs coach to come to Ohio State and coach them,” Kurelic said Thursday. “They were excited about someone who had been in the NFL and who could get them to the next level.”

Hafley spent seven NFL seasons coaching secondaries at Tampa Bay, Cleveland and San Francisco before coming to Ohio State. He left after the Fiesta Bowl to become coach at Boston College, and things have gone quiet at Ohio State regarding the opening. Why? No rush if Coombs is your guy. He already was a dynamite college recruiter before he gained NFL experience. Now? Look out.

“Perception is reality,” Kurelic said. “Recruits think, 'Hey, this guy was an NFL coach. That makes him a good coach and makes him someone who can help me get to the next level.' ”

Coming from the NFL also means assistants arrive with new ideas generated from game-planning against the best players in the world.

That doesn't mean every former NFL coach is a smashing success. Meyer hired Bill Davis, who had worked for nine NFL teams, to coach Ohio State's linebackers in 2017. That didn't work out. The linebackers struggled mightily, especially last season. The unit did a 180 this season with mostly the same players.

Meyer also brought in former Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano to help run the defense in 2016, with mixed results.

But so far Day is two for two with hiring former NFL assistants Hafley and Mattison, who came to Ohio State directly from Michigan but spent 2008-10 with the Baltimore Ravens, first coaching the linebackers, then as defensive coordinator.

Getting Coombs would be three for three.


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