After 'painful' end to 2020 season, Buckeyes coordinator Coombs looks ahead

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, here on the sideline during a game against Michigan State on Dec. 5, took the blame for the Buckeyes' poor showing in the national championship game. "I want to make sure when I say we didn't play our best, that's on me."

Perhaps no one felt the sting of Ohio State's 52-24 loss in the College Football Playoff championship game to Alabama more than defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs.

“It was incredibly painful,” Coombs said Friday after Ohio State opened its spring practice. It was his first news conference with reporters since the title game.

Alabama rolled up 621 yards against the Buckeyes, who looked powerless to slow, let alone stop, the Crimson Tide.

“I feel very responsible that we didn't play our best in that environment,” Coombs said. “And I want to make sure when I say we didn't play our best, that's on me. That's my job. It was awful, and it hadn't happened to us very much here. You know, it just doesn't.”

In fairness, Alabama was an offensive juggernaut, ranking with the best ever in college football. The Buckeyes had to play without defensive linemen Tommy Togiai and Tyreke Smith for COVID-19 reasons.

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And Coombs, always an optimist, pointed out what an achievement it was for the Buckeyes to reach the title game and to even have a season at all after the Big Ten initially postponed it. Ohio State had three games canceled and dealt with a revolving door of missing players and coaches because of COVID.

“Without going back through that, being on that journey and being able to get to that last game was truly remarkable,” he said.

Still, the Alabama game was an eye-opener. The Crimson Tide made Ohio State look as slow as the Buckeyes usually make most of their opponents look.

In the aftermath, coach Ryan Day acknowledged that coaches would reassess their defensive philosophy to prevent a repeat. It wasn’t the only time the Buckeyes struggled defensively in 2020. They allowed 25.8 points per game and 5.9 yards per snap, worst in OSU history.

“Yeah, it makes you rethink how you do things,” Coombs said. “There's no question that this entire offseason has been a great process of exactly that — rethinking how we do things and how we're going to do things in the future.”

Coombs declined to provide specifics about how the defense would change.

“Nope,” he said with a smile. “I mean, really, why would I?”

Coombs believes many of the issues can be solved simply by having a more normal season. The Buckeyes canceled most of their 2020 spring practice. Players were sent back home after that, and even during the season, COVID issues forced limitations in practice.

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One hallmark of the Buckeyes’ defense — its press, man-to-man coverage — was not up to standard a year ago. Coombs attributed that to a lack of practice reps.

“We need to be able to play press, man-to-man,” Coombs said. “We need to be able to do it over and over and over again, and we need to be able to do it successfully. I watched every period of individual (drills) from the entire season last year, and we only got seven sessions of real 1-on-1s in the course of a year. That's very challenging, right? In order to be able to do that job, you’ve got to practice it over and over again.”

DeVonta Smith and Alabama scored 52 points on an Ohio State defense that struggled in pass coverage all season.

While Coombs acknowledged the necessity of making defensive improvement, he didn’t want last year’s struggles, especially against Alabama, to overshadow everything.

“It's important to recognize we won all the games but one and got farther than we had the year before,” he said. “We got to the championship game. I can tell you this: If we get the championship game again, I’ll be really happy.

“Sometimes, you can get too caught up in numbers. The number that matters is victories. We were third in the country in turnover ratio. There were a lot of things that we did well. We just have to do other things better.”