When a team — or any part of a team — does not perform up to the standards that are set for it, typically the coach who leads the unit comes under fire.
The Ohio State defense finished 47th in the nation after last season, giving up an average of 377.4 yard per game. It allowed an average of 268 yards per game through the air, a dismal figure that placed the group at 112th in the country (out of 125 Division I teams) in the category.
Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell addressed the topic of what was wrong with the defense, possibly bringing into question whether or not he was the right man for the job.
Fickell gave a lengthy answer Thursday after the Buckeyes’ second spring practice on if he felt his job was in jeopardy after last season’s poor performance by the defense — particularly late in the season.
“Statistics, at the end of the year you really look back and do you really want to dive into statistics and say where were you in scoring defense? What’s the most important? You can always find something that you gotta get better at, you gotta find something that you can hang your hat on. But the reality is, you go on. You go on battling. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen,” Fickell said.
If the Fickell thought his job was in jeopardy after back-to-back losses in which his unit gave up 438 and 576 yards to Michigan State and Clemson, respectively, he never specifically said it did. But he did go on to describe how even if he did think about it, it wouldn’t be worth fretting about.
“But what are you going to do, live your life worried about everything? How would that be? How much excitement — what would that do for you?” Fickell said. “So you know what, you’re confident in what you do, you believe in what you do.”
Fickell added that above all, he wants what’s best for OSU — and coach Urban Meyer knows that.
“If that’s what that plan is, that’s what the plan is. I want what’s best for this place. Coach Meyer knows that, and we talked about that from day one,” Fickell said. “If something’s better for this place, then so be it. Because I want what’s best for my alma mater and my university.”
Aside from what happened last year, Fickell described his relationship and the transition with recently added co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash as “great,” but said it has been a bit of an opportunity for him to grow.
“I know that we haven’t had the real stressors and the things of the reality of a season, but I tell you we’ve battled through a lot of things in the last month or so,” Fickell said.
“It’s been a great growing experience for me. Always had a little bit of a comfort level since I’ve been here with the the people that I’ve known … It’s been a great growing experience for I think all of us. And I think it’s going to show.”
A player who showed some promise and ability to possibly help the Buckeye defense was sophomore safety Vonn Bell, who earned his first start of his career against Clemson. Against the Tigers, he recorded seven tackles as well as an acrobatic interception at the goal line, but he is expected to miss the rest of spring practice after having surgery Thursday to repair an MCL knee sprain, according to an OSU spokesman. Bell is expected to be at “full speed” in May.
Fickell and Ash are not the only coaches going through a transition, as OSU must replace four departed offensive linemen who paved the way for a rushing attack that finished second in the nation in total yards. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner does not have to work with a new coach as Fickell and Ash does, but he is in the process of preparing a group of younger players to fill the void.
“We do have some good young players, some of them are older that haven’t played much, but what we lack is experience,” Warinner said of his unit, with the lone returning starter being junior Taylor Decker. “I think we’re going to have enough talent. I know we have a good work ethic, I know they’re tough, they train hard so they had a really good offseason in terms of their training and their development.”
One of the players who is likely to earn a starting spot is redshirt-sophomore Pat Elflein, who filled in for the suspended Marcus Hall at right guard during the Michigan game and again at the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State. Elflein echoed his position coach and said the talent is there.
“There’s some guys that are inexperienced, but we definitely have enough talent to get the job done,” Elflein said. “So we just have a good spring, work hard and get better every day and get these guys ready to go … show them the way because some guys are lacking experience and we just have to bring them with us and show them the ropes and get everyone on the same page and build that chemistry in the room and continue to roll and get better.”
Decker said there’s a “different feeling” on the offensive line without the departed seniors, which adds a sense of intensity to practice.
“There is a definite sense of urgency and guys are flying around trying to give great efforts to make impressions on the coaches, which that’s good to have,” Decker said. “Guys working hard, giving all they have every single play.”
Warinner was brought on when Meyer took over prior to 2012, and he said the group he is working with now is “way ahead” of the line he overtook then.
“We don’t have anybody that has a ways to go, so there weights are good, their strengths are good, their demeanor,” Warinner said. “So it’s a fun group to coach, we just lack experience but we’ll be OK.”