A Buckeye, a Badger and a Bearcat walk into a coaches meeting and have to find a way to work together to save the Ohio State football team’s defense.
There’s no punch line for the joke, because it hasn’t had time to be written yet.
With the addition of co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash to coach Urban Meyer’s staff — the aforementioned Badger because of a two-year stint with Wisconsin, before spending last season with the Arkansas Razorbacks — to the OSU coaching staff in January, there were bound to be some things that had to be figured out in the coach’s room.
Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell (the Buckeye) and cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs (who spent four seasons as an assistant with the Cincinnati Bearcats) had to figure out how to work with the new coach and still help revitalise a pass defense that finished 112th in the country last season.
But through spring practice, things have been going swimmingly for the defensive coaching staff.
“Love Coach Ash,” Coombs said April 3. “Again, I would like to think that I’m a lifelong learner, and in the experiences I’ve had and the exposure that I’ve had to different coaches and different strategies and different ways to approach the game is refreshing.
“I think Chris and I are working really well together. A lot of communication and so I think it’s been a real blessing for me, and I hope he would say the same thing. But I’m enjoying working for him.”
The two coaches will be in charge of a secondary that struggled at times last year, allowing more than 300 yards through the air in each of the final four games of the season.
The unit will also lose four key players from last season’s unit — starters cornerback Bradley Roby and safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant, as well as safety Corey “Pitt” Brown, who started in place of the injured Bryant.
Coombs said Ash brings in a completely different style of play than Everett Withers, the coach he replaced, who took the head coaching job at James Madison Dec. 20.
“The style of play we’re playing is different … one of the things I told coach Meyer about when he (Withers) left is we need to start meeting together, we need to start spending more time together as a cohesive unit,” Coombs said of the cornerbacks and safeties spending more time together. “So Chris and I are able to do that and spend time together and that’s worked out really well. He’s got good energy, he’s got good passion … We’re playing a style of defense that is very appealing to me as corners coach and a lot of stuff that I believe in, so I’m very excited about that.”
During his two seasons with Wisconsin, Ash was part of a Badger secondary that finished 18th (2012) and fourth (2011) in the country in terms of average passing yards allowed per game.
It appears that as coaches of the secondary, Coombs and Ash are clicking heading into summer. But as a co-defensive coordinator, Ash has to work just as closely with Fickell as he does with Coombs.
“If I didn’t think that Luke and I could have a good working relationship and have great chemistry in the room, I would not have done it,” Ash said on National Signing Day Feb. 5. “To me, the players are going to feed off the coaches and we talk a lot about how successful teams have one thing in common: they’ve got great chemistry. You don’t have to be best friends or anything, but you’ve got to be on the same page, you’ve got to have a great working relationship.”
Fickell agreed with his new colleague.
“It’s been a great transition, to be honest with you. 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 March 6. “It’s been a great growing experience for me … That’s one thing coach Meyer likes to do, is get you out of your comfort zone, and having some new guys has made me do that, and has made me broaden things that we do.”
Fickell added it doesn’t matter whose job is what, as long as the coaches mesh as one cohesive unit.
“We ask our (players) to be a ‘one 11.’ We ask them to play together, because that’s why this is the greatest team sport known to man,” Fickell said. “It’s not any different from coaches. It doesn’t matter with titles or anything like that. The thing that I think we’ve done a good job of, and coach has challenged us for about the last month, we’ve been in there battling through things that we’ll be on the same page.”
Meyer, who at the end of last season said he was taking a more active hand in the defense moving forward, said the rebuilding of the defensive secondary is on the right track.
“It’s going well. You’ve heard the term ‘overhaul.’ We’ve been pretty good against rush defenses the last few years, not very good against pass defense,” Meyer said March 25. “So we’re completely revamping the entire back end of how we do our business, and so far it’s been pretty good.”
During Meyer’s first two seasons with the Buckeyes, OSU finished 78th (2012) and 112th (2013) in average yards allowed per game through the air, something the head coach is confident Ash will be able to fix.
The coaching staff aren’t the only ones who are excited about the addition of Ash, as defensive players are also happy with him so far.
“I like him, I call him the mini coach Coombs,” junior cornerback Armani Reeves said April 3. “He’s like a younger coach Coombs, he still has all the energy. I love it. I’m happy he’s here enjoying it and hopefully he stays for a really long time.”
Reeves added the coaches working together has “been a good balance” during the spring. Senior cornerback Doran Grant is another player who enjoys the changes Ash has brought to the program.
“An aggressive personality, just going to get at it every day,” Grant said following the 2014 Spring Game April 12. “Just going and going and going. He is very precise in his teaching and I love that about him.”
The team’s first chance to show off what Ash is bringing to the program comes Aug. 30 at noon, when OSU is scheduled to take on Navy at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Ash said the only thing that matters when it comes to succeeding on defense is working together as a team.
“When you talk about defensive staffs that have chemistry and work well together, when you get to game day, honestly, most of the people in the defensive staffs should be able to make the calls,” Ash said. “If everyone’s aligned the right way … If the defensive staff is aligned the right way, you’re preparing the right way, and everybody has ownership on what you’re doing, calling on game day isn’t really that difficult to be honest with you.”