When the 2013 Michigan Game, with Ohio State hanging on for dear life to complete a second consecutive undefeated regular season, things looked relatively good for the Buckeyes. They would advance to their first ever Big Ten Championship Game, facing the exact opponent they needed to gain some national respect and, with the help of Auburn knocking off then-number one Alabama, a spot in the BCS Championship was all but assured.
No one told that to Michigan State, of course.
Still, a BCS berth is nothing to scoff at, and a victory in the Discover Orange Bowl would be just what the doctor ordered in order to get over the Championship Game loss hangover. The Clemson Tigers posed a very real threat to a victory, with a high-powered offensive attack against a maligned secondary but surely the Buckeye offense could outscore a Clemson defense that was abused at home against Florida State earlier in the season. 13-1 with a bowl win is a great catalyst for a program-redefining season ahead, and that fate was all but assured.
No one told Clemson, of course.
Instead of heading into the off-season with a smile, the Buckeyes limped in with two consecutive losses and a lot of questions requiring immediate and effective answers by the players and staff. In the midst of sorting out what went wrong in the last two Buckeye outings, two of the principle defensive architects, Mike Vrabel and Everett Withers set out for different (if not greener) pastures of the NFL's Houston Texans and the Colonial Athletic Association's James Madison Dukes, respectively. Just two more questions into the heap of others leaving Buckeye fans (and players and staff, if we're being honest) scratching their heads.
So what did the brain trust on Olentangy River Road do? They took a page out of Carlos Hyde's playbook and ran right through the problem, leaving it battered and bruised in the wake. The non-metaphorical equivalent of that is the finalizing of deals to replace Vrabel and Withers. Enter: Chris Ash and Larry Johnson, Sr.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the biggest issue for the Buckeyes, other than dropped punts or interceptions, was by far the lackluster play of a secondary that had spent the majority of the year shining against sub-par competition, and making middle-of-the-road quarterbacks look like Drew Brees or Peyton Manning when lined up across from them. The chief architect of that secondary was co-Defensive Coordinator and safeties Coach Withers, who already had a deal in place at JMU before the debacle that was the Orange Bowl. Withers' pedigree was fine before and even during his tenure, but came into serious relief as the 2013 season progressed.
Replacing Withers and, perhaps, redefining the Buckeye secondary will be no easy task, but it will be one that falls to Chris Ash. Ash's may not be a name that you know right away like Kirby Smart or Chad Morris, but while on staff at Wisconsin, he coached good defense after good defense, a lot of which gave many Ohio State teams fits. FOTHL Bret Bielema left Wisconsin and took Ash with him, but his one year in Fayetteville was more than enough to answer the call to action in Columbus, a fact about which Bielema's many, many detractors were all too eager to share.
Vrabel, however, is a different character. Not only is he the world's first Doctor-Professor-Bro Hybrid, he is Buckeye royalty in Columbus, but his NFL career, and the three Super Bowl Championships that came with it, were not only effective on the field, but equally so on the recruiting trail. If Urban Meyer is the closer, then Vrabel was the guy pitching a perfect eighth inning to land a recruit.
To replace someone like Vrabel, you need to replace not only the on-the-field prowess, but also the recruiting savvy so as not to lose a step in creating the next great Buckeye. Larry Johnson, Sr. is the perfect fit.
Johnson is the last hold out from the Joe Paterno Era at Penn State, where he coached for 19 years. He is entrenched in the Western Pennsylvania and Mid-Atlantic areas, which will become pipelines to the 'Shoe. He has sent six of his players to the NFL as first round picks, seven All-Americans, and six Big Ten defensive line/players of the year. And his son was a Hesiman finalist. Put bluntly, Larry Johnson is a home run, a touchdown and a three-point conversion of a hire to replace Vrabel.
The point here is that the Buckeyes could have taken their two losses and gone into hibernation for the winter, hopefully emerging as a better team when Spring arrives; many other Buckeye teams have done just that in the past decade. But this is not any other Buckeye team. Two losses meant that two spots needed filling. Meyer didn't look for anyone to fill those spots, he found probably the best candidates on any shortlist in the country.
A Big Ten Championship or Orange Bowl win wasn't in the cards for the Buckeyes. But bringing Ash and Johnson to the fold might end up as the catalyst Ohio State needs to jump headfirst into a redefining 2014 season.