Rob Oller | Buckeyes get needed fine-tuning as Coombs focuses on coordinating defense

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith caught passes against everyone who tried to cover him in the national championship win over Ohio State — cornerbacks, safeties, even linebackers such as OSU's Tuf Borland.

Describing Ryan Day’s Wednesday news conference as an autopsy is not quite right. Ohio State is not deceased, but the Buckeyes did expire against Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game, so poking around at the remains is in order.

With that in mind, it is no wonder Day addressed as many questions about the past as the future. Perhaps a better way to put it: The Ohio State coach addressed how the past will impact the future.

To that end, Day made a staffing decision — moving Matt Barnes from specials teams coach to being in charge of the secondary — that is designed to shore up what in 2020 was a shaky pass defense. Ohio State surrendered 464 yards passing in the 52-24 loss to Alabama on Jan. 11 after giving up 400 to Clemson at the Sugar Bowl. Overall, OSU ranked 87th of 127 teams in Football Bowl Subdivision in team passing defense efficiency (143.07) and 122nd in average passing yards allowed per game (304.0).

Those numbers are alarming. The Buckeyes played only five regular-season games, stunting the growth of several inexperienced defensive backs who needed as many snaps as possible to get comfortable.

Yeah, but Ohio State should never flirt with statistical basement-dwellers. Day had to make a move, placing Barnes in charge of defensive backs and filling his position from within by elevating quality control coach Parker Fleming to run special teams.

Barnes assumes the responsibilities of Kerry Coombs, who in 2020 oversaw the secondary as well as serving as defensive co-coordinator. Coombs will concentrate strictly on his coordinator duties in 2021.

Coombs exudes enthusiasm and has strong recruiting chops, but had never been a coordinator before last season, when he teamed with Greg Mattson to direct the defense. Mattison, who retired at the end of January, paid special attention to the run game, so those responsibilities fall to defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Al Washington Jr.

Was keeping one eye on the defensive backs while trying to orchestrate an entire defense too much for Coombs? Not from a motivational standpoint.

Schematically, however, Coombs requires more seasoning. Especially against Alabama, the defense was put in awkward positions that the Crimson Tide was able to exploit. Granted, Alabama’s offense was exceptional, especially at quarterback (Mac Jones) and receiver (DeVonta Smith), but the Buckeyes helped them look great by trying to cover a Heisman Trophy-winning receiver, Smith, with linebackers at times.

The possibility exists that Ohio State’s safeties and cornerbacks simply were not good enough, but Day shot down that notion on Wednesday.

“When something like this comes up you try to figure out, is it personnel? Is it coaching? Or is it scheme?” Day said. “I would say we have good enough personnel, (though) we have to keep taking a long look at how we put guys in certain situations. Scheme? I like it, but there were times where we could have done a better job schematically. And coaching is a chunk of it.”

Day’s explanation of what happened against Alabama does not amount to throwing your coaches under the bus — he is too smart to single out individual staffers —  but it might be tossing them in front of a bicycle.

“This is going to allow (Coombs) to take a little bit of a step back and take a wider approach with the linebackers and guys up front,” Day said. 

Speaking on Day’s radio show on Wednesday, Coombs said, “I’m not evaporating from the secondary. I’ll still be around, but also I’ll have the opportunity to focus on team and complementary defense.”

Where things get interesting is in assessing the risk factor of placing Coombs in charge of the defense, without having Mattison to smooth the rough edges. Day made sure to soften concerns by stressing that Coombs will work closely with the other defensive coaches.

How to further alleviate worries? Keep an eye on the next few weeks, when it is possible that Day might bring in a defensive consultant to advise and fine-tune the game-planning process.

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it,” Day said of going the consultant route. “I’m taking a hard look at that, seeing people around who might be the right fit. The big thing for us is it has to be the right fit culturally. It has to be the right personality and bring the right things to the table. Certainly we’re looking at all those things and over the next couple weeks we have an opportunity to bring some guys in and possibly talk about those type of things.”

Day is doing his due diligence in weighing all coaching options. He is not so naive to claim “nothing to see here.” But what he sees is a need to tweak more than to overhaul.

“Do we overreact? We’re not going to do that right now,” he said.

Key words: right now.