The Ohio State football team has prided itself on its defense since the days of Woody Hayes. The 2013 Buckeyes failed to win the Big Ten Championship, a de facto play-in game to enter the national championship game, primarily on the play of a below-average secondary that ranked 112th in the country in passing defense.
Coach Urban Meyer decided to make a change and brought in then-Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash. In just one season, Ash played a significant part in the transformation of the OSU defense, the “Silver Bullets,” into a menacing takeaway machine. Primarily overseeing the defensive backs at OSU, the Buckeyes forced 26 turnovers in 2014 and ranked 29th in pass defense.
Now, Ash is attempting to transform another defense in his new job as head coach of Rutgers, OSU’s opponent in the Buckeyes’ Big Ten opener on Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
Redshirt junior defensive end Tyquan Lewis said Ash taught the defense a new style of tackling during his two seasons in Columbus. Ash preached the importance of keeping their heads up and driving through the ball carrier’s legs during a tackle.
“(The tackling) shows up more on the perimeter,” Lewis said. “They’re coming up and hitting the right way. It makes a big difference as far as missed tackles.”
Rutgers is Ash’s first job as a head coach in Division I college football. Before Arkansas and Ohio State, Ash spent two seasons with Wisconsin as the Badgers’ defensive coordinator. All too familiar with his former colleague’s play calling and coaching style, Meyer said that he has changed a lot of his defensive signals for this week given the similarities in the Scarlet Knight defense.
“It’s our defense. I mean, like, exactly,” Meyer said during Monday’s press conference. “Their defensive line is much improved and the guys are bigger and stronger.”
Not only is Ash a part of the Meyer coaching tree, Rutgers offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer, special teams coordinator Vince Okruch, defensive backs coach Bill Busch, running backs coach Zak Kuhr and strength and conditioning coach Kenny Parker worked under Meyer in some capacity at OSU. Mehringer even worked with former OSU offensive coordinator Tom Herman at Houston in 2015.
While Ash is beginning to create his own coaching carousel, his teachings still reside within the OSU program. Redshirt junior linebacker Chris Worley said co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, who replaced Ash in the offseason, has nearly the same defense so there has not been a learning curve this season.
Worley is in his first season as a starter and experiencing the most success he has had at OSU. While Schiano and co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell are certainly due credit for Worley’s success, the linebacker said Ash had a large contribution to his maturation into a more intelligent football player.
With the implementation of the targeting rule in 2013 that protects an offensive player from a head injury, Worley, who used to be a guy that looked for the big hit, is a more fundamentally sound tackler than he was his first year in Columbus.
“It’s the greatest way of tackling in the game of football today. It helped me, but it helped everyone who came through here and played defense,” Worley said. “Just knowing when I can take those shots and when I can’t, being comfortable and tackling in that way has helped me a tremendous amount.”
For the offense that will actually be facing the Scarlet Knight defense, redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett has great familiarity in competing against a Chris Ash defense. Barrett battled in practice against Ash and OSU’s first and second team defense for the better part of two years.
When the Buckeyes trot out on Saturday, Barrett said the offense has some comfortability facing a familiar defense. But knowing Ash, Barrett and the coaching staff expects him to implement schemes he has not shown through Rutgers’ first three games.
“It’s a funky mix between the two … he’s not going to let our base things try to happen,” Barrett said. “At the end of the day we have to be prepared for what he’s going to throw at us and making adjustments on the fly.”