They say the only constant is change, and unfortunately for the Buckeyes, the Ohio State defense has been proof of that.
When Ryan Day took over as head coach in 2019, he hired Jeff Hafley to be the defensive coordinator and run a particular brand of defense. Hafley lasted one year at Ohio State before leaving to become the head coach at Boston College.
Day then turned to former Buckeyes cornerback coach Kerry Coombs to run Hafley’s “single-high defense” in 2020, to mixed results. The defense was a mix of what it used to be and what what it needed to be. The 2021 season saw Coombs’ play-calling duties handed over to Matt Barnes early on as OSU moved more to a two-high safety defense .
Neither Coombs nor Barnes were retained following the 2021 season. Day then went and got the most-coveted defensive coordinator on the market in Oklahoma State’s Jim Knowles. Knowles installed his own defense last year, and he’s now back for year two, which means for the first time in years, the Buckeyes will be running and expanding the same defensive system for the second year in a row.
Sixth-year senior safety Josh Proctor was asked the last time he was in the same defense two years in a row. He had to go back to his high school days.
“This is my first time. First time in seven years, honestly,” he said. “Had a new coach, new system every year since I’ve been here.”
Proctor’s first year was 2018 with Greg Schiano as the defensive coordinator. Then to Hafley, Coombs, Barnes, and now Knowles. Even though he’s moved from strong safety to free safety, the knowledge of the defense remains.
And he’s not alone.
“Way easier. I mean, the game slowed down,” said senior safety Lathan Ransom about being in the same defense. “This is the first time I’ve been here that we played the same defense for two years in a row. So that’s one thing that I’m really excited about to get more comfortable and just play fast.”
Each system takes time to learn, and then once a new coordinator comes in, the old defense can also take time to unlearn. This is the first time in the respective careers of each Buckeye on defense that they can build on the previous year’s defense. They aren’t starting from square one. They’re not even at square two.
“It takes time to learn a new system,” cornerbacks coach Tim Walton said. “So I think now, you can see the level of confidence and the comfort and understanding of what’s going on. So they’re able to play a little faster and able to have fun with what they’re doing.”
The result has been a secondary that has gotten its hands on a number of passes. It’s also a defense that has been ahead of the offense so far this spring. There is a feeling that everybody finally knows what they’re doing, and the coaches have a much better understanding of what can be asked of every Buckeye who suits up.
“Absolutely. You can tell there’s a comfort level there,” safeties coach Perry Eliano said. “There’s a confidence. They’re able to process and articulate the defense even better. And you just kind of tell they’ve got a lot of juice to them. They’re eager to continue to learn.”
Even for junior cornerback Denzel Burke — who has started since his true freshman season — there is a level of confidence now that wasn’t a part of the defense a year ago.
“Oh, I finally got my feet wet,” Burke said. “I’m picking coach Knowles’ brain. I kind of know what he’s gonna pick on certain down and distances, whatever down it is. And I just know how to work my way in the scheme. So I feel like I’m a lot more comfortable.”
The players are more comfortable with the defense, and the coaches are more comfortable with the players. There is a much better understanding of what they can be asked to do because they now have a much better understanding of the system as a whole.
“It’s easier to talk ball with them and to talk through plays and successes and failures,” Eliano said. “So they understand, ‘Okay, now that’s the why again. Okay, now that makes sense.’ Whereas last year was more still trying to get them to understand why that mistake happened. So it’s been pleasant, but they’re eager to learn. They’re eager to get better every day. They’re humble, and they’re hungry.”
However, this type of hunger never really gets sated. It just creates more hunger. Players are beginning to understand the potential of what they’re doing, and they’re seeing the possibilities.
“It feels really good,” said fourth-year junior nickel back Cameron Martinez. “I was actually talking to my parents about it, it’s kind of crazy because this is the first year [in the same defense]. Every year I had to learn or kind of build relationships with the new coach, new defense, and everything like that. And taking on the mental reps and all that stuff, but now it’s like I can come out here and I can just play and just be myself. And I think that’s really good. I really like this coaching stuff. I really like what we’re able to do.”