'It's sort of a group effort:' How Matt Barnes is calling Ohio State football's defense

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

Matt Barnes stood behind a lecturn at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Tuesday, taking questions from reporters about Ohio State’s defense.

He has become the public face of the unit in recent weeks. Since an upset loss to Oregon laid bare a series of shortcomings, the 35-year-old secondary coach has taken over the play-calling from defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs.

It’s an unusual spot for a position coach, serving as the defense’s primary play-caller in place of the million-dollar coordinator, but it’s one Barnes has confronted before. As the linebackers coach at Maryland in 2018, he called the Terrapins’ defense, gaining experience that has helped him handle the new responsibilities.

“It’s like if you're playing football,” Barnes said. “The best way to get better at playing football is to play football. I think the best way to improve calling defense is to call defense.”

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He added that he learned a few “valuable lessons” from his stint at the other Big Ten program from four years ago.

Matt Barnes getting help from Larry Johnson, Al Washington

Amid the reshuffling of staff roles that has left him with a greater hand in the defense, Barnes stressed that collaboration remains with Coombs, as well as defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers Al Washington.

All of them continue to shape Ohio State’s game plan and play calls.

Defensive backs coach Matt Barnes has called plays for the Ohio State defense the past two games.

“It's sort of a group effort,” Barnes said, “particularly gameday, just sorting through adjustments. We're all in the meetings throughout the week and put a call sheet together of what we like in certain situations. In a lot of ways, the game calls itself.”

Barnes has called plays for the Buckeyes’ defense in consecutive wins over Tulsa and Akron, the final non-conference games that followed the matchup Oregon.

The Ohio State defense took a positive step against Akron

The biggest signs of growth appeared to come in last week’s 59-7 win over the Zips. Dialing up pressure, they sacked quarterback DJ Irons nine times, the most in a game since 2007, and looked more aggressive.

Dropping an additional safety into pass coverage has also helped stem some of the explosive plays they had allowed earlier in the month.

Barnes was cautious when asked about the progress of defense, noting the upcoming slate of Big Ten games, including Saturday’s game at Rutgers, would offer a far better barometer. Next week, they host unbeaten Maryland, which is led by quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who leads the conference in most of the major passing categories.

“We’ve seen improvement in some areas,” Barnes said, “but we’ll really be tested getting into league play.”

Buckeyes coach Ryan Day gave a similar assessment of the defense’s strides.

“I don't think the answer's here yet,” he said. “We got to see where we are week to week and bring it week to week. It's not you do a good job one week, then move on.”

When Barnes was asked by Day to call plays for the defense in the aftermath of the setback against Oregon, he took on the role without much pride.

The circumstances were apparent. The Buckeyes were struggling. It was a difficult few days for the staff.

“It was a humbling time and still is for all of us,” he said. “Very high expectations here at Ohio State and rightfully so. So it was a change and it continues to be a change for all of us.”

Kerry Coombs moved to the box while Matt Barnes been on the sidelines

During the past two games, Barnes has been situated on the sideline, while Coombs has been perched in the press box.

When Coombs served as the play-caller, he stood on the field, but previous Buckeyes coordinators did not. Jeff Hafley sat up in a booth in 2019 when he ran the nation’s top-ranked defense. Barnes finds that spot too detached.

“The biggest thing for me is on the field you can really be hands on with how you adjust the game from series to series,” Barnes said. “In the box, you can be effective in providing information, but it's hard. You're not the one articulating those adjustments to the players, and we know how important it is.”

Barnes said communication between the press box and field has been seamless. Johnson and Washington also are on the sideline during games.

“Our gameday operation, our information from the press box, has been extraordinary,” Barnes said. “We've really seen everything we needed to see and been able to adjust it pretty well.”

Barnes is hopeful the adjustments will continue in the weeks ahead, searching for improvement for a group that ranks only No. 89 in the FBS in total defense through four weeks.

“This is something that we are arm in arm as a defensive staff and as a coaching staff,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are in a relentless pursuit of how to get it right and how to improve.”

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at jkaufman@dispatch.com or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman.

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