Even with players missing, secondary coach Barnes relishing new role
Matt Barnes is in his first year in charge of Ohio State’s secondary, and arguably his two top cornerbacks are injured for the spring.
Considering the Buckeyes’ pass-defense struggles last year, it wouldn’t seem far-fetched to imagine Barnes bemoaning his plight. Instead, he is thrilled with his job.
“Just about every day that I've gone home,” he said, “my wife has asked me, ‘How’s your day?’ and I'm just glowing, man. I just love it. I love this season.”
Spring practice disrupted by COVID pandemic
Spring practice is mostly about improving fundamentals and technique, and after 2020 the Buckeyes need it. They got in only three spring practices a year ago when the pandemic hit. The Woody Hayes Athletic Center was shuttered, and players scattered home all over the country. Coaches improvised to help players develop on their own, but only so much can be done remotely.
How much of Ohio State’s defensive problems last season is attributable to that can’t be quantified. But the Buckeyes ranked 122nd of 127 FBS teams, allowing 304 yards passing per game.
Coach Ryan Day shuffled his staff following co-coordinator Greg Mattison’s retirement. Day put Barnes, who was the assistant secondary coach under defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs as well as special teams coordinator last year, in charge of defensive backs.
“I think he's really, really good,” Day said shortly after making the changes. “I think Matt Barnes will do this job better than anybody else in the country for what we need.”
Barnes’ personality isn’t like Coombs’, but whose is? Coombs coaches like he’s shot out of a cannon. Barnes, who came to OSU two years ago from Maryland, is more understated.
“I admire his energy,” Barnes said of Coombs. “He sees everything in practice. He's unbelievable. He does a fantastic job.
“I'm probably a bit more reserved. I'm a little bit more animated on the practice field (than off it), but I think we work really well together. My style is more matter-of-fact. I just want you to get my corrections. I want you to hear what I'm saying and not necessarily how I'm saying it. I just want to make sure that I'm communicating as clearly as I can.”
Going back to fundamentals
Barnes relishes the opportunity to teach fundamentals in the spring without the pressure of installing a weekly game plan.
“You don’t know a guy that loves the game more than I do,” he said. “I love football. I love to teach the game. We watch very few plays (this time of year). Everything is just about concepts and techniques. I really take a lot of pride in my teaching and in setting up my meetings and trying to be creative and engaging.”
Barnes and Day both said that projecting any kind of depth chart in the secondary would be premature, particularly at cornerback. Cameron Brown injured his Achilles in the Penn State game last year and is still rehabbing. The team announced Thursday that returning starter Sevyn Banks will miss the rest of spring practice with an unspecified injury.
Josh Proctor figures to be at safety, and Marcus Williamson is expected to be the nickel cornerback again. But several talented young defensive backs are battling to get in the mix, including Lejond Cavazos, Ryan Watts, Lathan Ransom, Ronnie Hickman, Bryson Shaw, Cameron Martinez and Denzel Burke.
Day said the absences of Brown and Banks are giving some of those players first-team reps at cornerback.
“That's kind of the best way to do it, as opposed to sitting in the back with the twos and the threes,” Day said. “They're getting the reps with the ones and going against Chris (Olave) and Jaxon (Smith-Njigba) and Garrett (Wilson) and Jameson (Williams).
“We'll get Sevyn back and Cam back in the preseason, so this is great for us because it's building our depth in that area. Corners is an area that we need to get depth at.”
Barnes said several players are being tried at multiple positions in the secondary. The time will come when the depth chart will have to be sorted out. The time will come when the secondary will have to perform in games and show that last year was an aberration.
For now, Barnes is just happy to coach to see his players get the practice time they were denied last year and guide their improvement.
“To say that I've enjoyed it would be drastically understating it,” he said.