Here are the top 10 Ohio State football assistant coaches in the Urban Meyer/Ryan Day era

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

When Urban Meyer took over as Ohio State coach in 2012, he inherited a team coming off a rare losing season.

He would assemble a coaching staff that guided the Buckeyes to wins in their first 24 games and then won the 2014 national title. From up-and-comers to veterans, Meyer had a knack for eyeing coaching talent. One of those young coaches would succeed him as head coach in 2019.

Here’s a look at the most impactful assistant coaches since Meyer was hired:

Ryan Day with Urban Meyer

Ryan Day

He has to be at the top of the list. Meyer said he realized early after hiring Day from the NFL that he might have tabbed his eventual successor. That proved to be the case when Meyer decided to step down after the 2018 season. Athletic director Gene Smith thought so highly of Day that when Meyer was suspended for his handling of the Zach Smith saga four years ago, Day was named acting coach for the first three games instead of former head coaches Kevin Wilson and Greg Schiano. Day has brought an NFL-style offense to the Buckeyes in winning 45 of 50 games, and his personal connection with players is strong. Consecutive losses to Michigan have ended the honeymoon, but he has a chance in the upcoming College Football Playoff to quiet the critics.

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Tom Herman at Ohio State

Tom Herman

Herman joked that he would have walked to Columbus from Iowa State to accept Meyer’s offer as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. Herman was a Division III player at Cal Lutheran who climbed the coaching ranks quickly with his enthusiasm and intelligence. He was instrumental in developing J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones after Braxton Miller’s quarterback career ended. Herman’s value was never more obvious than in 2015 after he’d left to become the head coach at Houston. The Buckeyes’ talent-laden offense underperformed that season in his absence. After an unsuccessful stint at Texas, Herman was recently hired to be head coach at Florida Atlantic.

Nov 26, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes defensive line coach Larry Johnson yells from the sideline during the first half of the NCAA football game against the Michigan Wolverines at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

Larry Johnson

Johnson had long established himself as one of the best defensive-line coaches at Penn State when Meyer hired him after the 2013 season. Johnson was disappointed not to be considered seriously as the Nittany Lions’ coach, so he traded in his blue wardrobe for scarlet. What didn’t change was his success recruiting and molding linemen. Nick Bosa and Chase Young are the crown jewels of his time here, but he has also developed so many others – Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, Dre’Mont Jones, J.T. Tuimoloau, etc. He even got a head coaching win when he filled in for the COVID-stricken Day against Michigan State in 2020.

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Defense coach Luke Fickell yells at Ohio State Buckeyes safety Damon Webb (7) after a scuffle following a Michigan Wolverines touchdown during the second quarter of the NCAA football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Michigan Wolverines at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, November 26, 2016.

Luke Fickell

Fickell might not technically considered a hire because he was already on OSU’s staff. But Meyer was not inclined to retain Fickell, who was the interim head coach in 2011, because he believed any holdover would have his own agenda. But Fickell proved to be an adept defensive coordinator and sublimated his own ego when Chris Ash was hired to change the defense in 2014. Fickell was superb in discovering and developing under-the-radar talent. He continued that in turning the University of Cincinnati into a CFP team last year before taking the Wisconsin job recently.

Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash works with players.

Chris Ash

After OSU’s pass defense was exposed in 2013, Meyer hired Ash to fix it. Working with Fickell, Ash installed a scheme based on stopping the pass first. That system was instrumental in the Buckeyes’ winning the national title in his first year. Ash left Ohio State to become head coach at Rutgers. That did not go well, but Ash has landed as defensive backs coach for the Las Vegas Raiders.

Sep 16, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, United States; Passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Brian Hartline during warmups against Toledo. Mandatory Credit: Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch

Brian Hartline

Hartline had no intention of entering coaching after his seven-year NFL career ended. But he took a behind-the-scenes role at Ohio State to try coaching and then was thrust into becoming the wide receivers coach when Zach Smith was fired just before training camp in 2018. Hartline has proved to be a natural, both on the recruiting trail and in developing players. Five-star recruits have been the norm. This year, Marvin Harrison Jr., who was “only” a four-star recruit became the Buckeyes’ first unanimous All-American receiver. Hartline is clearly one of the top rising stars in coaching.

Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley walks off the field following the Buckeyes’ 34-21 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. [Adam Cairns]

Jeff Hafley

Hafley was at Ohio State for only one season, but he made quite an impact on the 2019 Buckeyes team. He was hired by Day for his first staff as defensive backs coach and co-coordinator with Greg Mattison. Ohio State’s defense in 2018 had been a sieve. The energetic Hafley was credited for much of the turnaround on a dominant Buckeyes’ team that lost a heartbreaker to Clemson in the CFP semifinals. That made him a hot commodity on the coaching market, and Boston College hired him as its head coach.

Oct 29, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes defensive coordinator Jim Knowles watches warm ups prior to the NCAA Division I football game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

Jim Knowles

If the Michigan game had gone differently, Knowles would be higher on this list. Like Hafley three years ago, Knowles was hired after his successful stint at Oklahoma State to fix a dysfunctional defense. Through 11 games, he did that as the Buckeyes moved well into the top-10 nationally in defense. But Knowles was among many Buckeye players and coaches who didn’t have their best game against the Wolverines. An ill-fated blitz on Michigan’s first touchdown was followed by breakdowns in pass and run defense on explosive plays. The defense’s performance against Georgia will provide a big clue whether OSU’s defensive improvement was genuine or whether it was inflated by inferior competition.

Nov 12, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson walks across the field prior to the NCAA football game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

Kevin Wilson

Wilson was hired along with Day after OSU was shut out in the 2016 CFP semifinals, which was the first time a Meyer team had ever not scored. Wilson came to OSU with a reputation as an offensive mastermind, but he wouldn’t call the plays here. Still, he played a large role in Ohio State’s offensive success. He was recently hired as Tulsa’s head coach but will stay with the Buckeyes in their postseason.

Nov 26, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes running back TreVeyon Henderson (32) watches from the sideline behind running backs coach Tony Alford during the first half of the NCAA football game against the Michigan Wolverines at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

Tony Alford

Alford has recruited and developed several talented running backs, evolving into a father figure for many of them. He was a star runner at Colorado State, so he thoroughly understands the position. Under Alford, OSU has had a 1,000-yard rusher six times in his first seven years. This hasn’t been the smoothest of years for him, with both TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams missing big chunks of the season.

Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs is filled with optimism even though no Ohio State team allowed as many points per game (25.8) or yards per play (5.9) as last year’s.

Honorable mention

Kerry Coombs and Ed Warinner. Each would have been firmly on the list as position coaches, but their resumes were stained by unsuccessful stints as coordinators. Coombs had a remarkable string of first-rounders as cornerbacks coach before jumping to the NFL. He was lured back to be defensive coordinator, but the Buckeyes struggled so much early in 2021 that Day took away play-calling duties from Coombs. Warinner was masterful in developing Ohio State’s offensive line in the early years of Meyer. But when promoted to coordinator in 2015 after Herman left, the Buckeyes underachieved.

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