Marcus Williamson says restoring the Ohio State secondary to its former glory begins with three letters.
That stands for “Best in America,” the standard coach Kerry Coombs challenged his pupils to establish and uphold during his first stint at an assistant at Ohio State from 2012-17.
Coombs was the cornerbacks coach then, and whatever he was doing seemed to work.
Nine Ohio State defensive backs were selected in the NFL Draft from 2013-18, including six in the first round, while the numbers the team put up fluctuated but were more good than bad.
Coombs’ return last season as defensive coordinator and secondary coach did not go so well.
While the Buckeyes were eighth nationally in defensive pass efficiency, they went from first to nearly worst in passing yards allowed, ranking 122nd in the country in 2020 after leading the nation in that category in ’19.
There were multiple reasons for the drop, not the least of which was the exit of first-round cornerbacks Jeffrey Okudah and Damon Arnette plus standout deep safety Jordan Fuller.
Coombs’ challenge in replacing Jeff Hafley, a one-year wonder who parlayed one season as co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach into the head coaching position at Boston College, increased exponentially when the coronavirus pandemic wiped out most of spring practice and disrupted the preseason and regular season in numerous ways.
Now the Buckeyes want to look forward — albeit with one eye on the positives from the past.
“We really wanted to bring back that ‘B-I-A’ mentality, that culture,” said Williamson, a fifth-year senior who had 27 tackles while playing multiple roles in the secondary last season.
“We’ve got so many young and inexperienced guys. Even if they were here last year, they didn’t have that full offseason with (strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti), spring ball doing all those push ups we do preparing for the Team Up North (Michigan) game. You didn’t have those experiences.”
With that being the case, Williamson said he and fellow senior Josh Proctor are trying to set an example in a position room that has eight first- or second-year players.
“Being able to you know bring that mindset to the practice field has been a benefit to me and Josh and some of the older guys and the younger guys as well so that they can see how we do things and how we operate the right way here,” Williamson said. “So I think that’s been a big focus for us is just mindset and culture, and I think it’s translating. I think we’ve seen a lot improvement, top to bottom, and it’s really exciting to see.”
There’s also been a change in the coaching staff.
Coombs is still roaming the sidelines, but he’s been assigned by head coach Ryan Day to concentrate on coordinating the defense.
Matt Barnes was promoted to the secondary coach after assisting in that role and coordinating special teams the past two seasons.
“I really enjoyed the opportunity to be involved with special teams and will remain involved with special teams,” Barnes said. “I’m just really passionate about coaching defense, so for me I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to dive head-first into defense. Kerry and I have worked in chorus through this transition.”
Coombs has remained involved with the defensive backs, according to Barnes, but the hope is taking a step back will help him be able to iron out some of the issues that led to numerous breakdowns in the defense last season.
“When you’re immersed in the defensive backfield, you maybe don’t see the whole picture quite as well, but hopefully it’s allowed him to have more time to really focus on the coordinating,” Barnes said.
Meanwhile, Barnes became just the latest coach meeting with reporters this spring to decline to reveal much depth chart information.
He said development is a bigger concern at this point in the spring.
“There’s a handful of guys who are really veterans who didn’t need much development, but really it’s a young roster,” Barnes said.
“In our room and every room there are so many guys who missed out on an opportunity to develop last spring and into the summer because it was so unorthodox with COVID. I keep coming back to this: concepts and techniques, effort and playing the game.”
Barnes credited that point of view to Day, but Day previously said the staff had suggested emphasizing fundamentals this spring.
“We just missed so much time,” Barnes said. “We’ll get to scheme. You can teach scheme on the board and in meetings and through film. But how do you teach a guy to get off a block? You put him in a situation where he’s got to get off a block. There’s no substitute for putting your hands on somebody and getting off a block.”