Ryan Day has pushed almost all of the right buttons in his first season as the Ohio State Buckeyes’ head coach, and no decision has had a more significant impact than the shake-up that he made on the defensive side of the ball. Outside of legendary defensive line coach Larry Johnson, Day cleaned house on that side of the ball and brought in all new coaches.
One of those new staff members was co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, who this week was nominated as a semifinalist for the Broyles Award. This award is given to the best assistant coach in college football, and there is no doubt that Hafley should be a major contender for his effort in helping alter this Buckeye defense.
In 2018, the Buckeyes ranked 71st in yardage allowed giving up 403.4 per game while also allowing 25.5 points per game. This was easily the worst defense during the Urban Meyer era, and it was clear that changes needed to be made. However, making a change does not guarantee a turnaround. Along with Hafley, a ton of credit needs to be given to Greg Mattison, Al Washington, and the continued brilliance of Larry Johnson.
Ohio State enters this week’s game against TTUN ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense, giving up only 217.4 yards per game. They’re also first in pass defense and fifth in rush defense; so they’ve done a complete turn around on all three levels of the defense. Thanks to those changes, the unit looks like the 2015 and ‘16 defenses that dominated their opponents.
Hafley has done most of his work with the secondary that, despite having a ton of talent in 2018, underachieved greatly. Losing assistant coach Kerry Combs a few years back was going to hurt regardless of who replaced him, given how successful he was coaching that position group, but it really showed in 2018. However, Hafley has come in and reinvigorated his position group.
You could tell that this hire might be successful given that he had approval from the players at his previous stop as the San Francisco 49ers’ secondary coach, including former all-pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
Richard Sherman on Jeff Hafley: "He's with his preparation, how he breaks down film and how easy and simple he makes the game plan sound and how easy he makes it for guys to understand. He paints a very vivid picture of what you're going to see and it's all about executing."— Garrett Stepien (@GarrettStepien) January 7, 2019
That praise has proven true as this Buckeye secondary is playing at an elite level and will get to prove it nationally against some great receivers on Saturday.
Jeff Okudah looks like a top-10 pick, Shaun Wade could also find his way in the first round if he leaves, and Damon Arnette looks like a new guy. And behind them, Jordan Fuller continues to be the linchpin that keeps everything together. Even the backups like Sevyn Banks, Amir Riep, and Cameron Brown have looked good when on the field.
And combined with on-field success, he has also proven to be one of the top recruiters in the nation. 247Sports has him as the number four in the 2020 recruiter in the country. Hafley has been able to land highly-touted players including Clark Phillips, Lathan Ransom, Lejond Cavazos, and Ryan Watts; so he off to a very good start.
If there was ever a question as to how impactful coaching can be, even when you have elite talent, Hafley and the other new coaches on defense have shown their value.