Ohio State’s defensive backfield stunk in 2018, but it probably wasn’t the fault of the players on the field. Ohio State’s defensive problems, their coverage lapses, missed tackles, and downright strange personnel decisions came not from the talent making (or not making) the plays. It came from a coaching staff that lasted just days after the coach that had hired them retired and handed the job over to new head coach Ryan Day.
Safeties coach Alex Grinch lasted two days. Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and linebackers coach/the best man at Urban Meyer’s wedding Bill Davis lasted five. Cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson was seemingly never formally let go, he was just replaced by Matt Barnes. In the span of a week, with one swoop, Ryan Day fired all but one member of Ohio State’s 2018 defensive staff, and replaced them with Barnes, Greg Mattison, Al Washington, and Jeff Hafley.
We don’t have to go into great detail as to why those coaches were fired, why new ones were so desperately needed, and what Ohio State was doing wrong on defense in 2018 that put the entirety of their back seven in a bad position all season long. I’ve written about that plenty, and honestly, I’m tired of watching Schiano make a safety play man coverage on a slot receiver with a 12-yard cushion, while Davis’ middle linebacker limps into another missed tackle. The point is, Ohio State did no favors to any of their defenders in 2018.
Most affected by that, outside of maybe Isaiah Pryor — who got an absolutely raw deal — were the two cornerbacks who got the most playing time, and the two guys watching them from the bench.
Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette spent the season struggling in Schiano’s all-press coverage defense, because neither of them were the level of elite cornerback (think Denzel Ward, Marshon Lattimore) needed to make that system work. On top of that, Ohio State was without a ball-hawking safety over the top, because both Jordan Fuller and Brendon White are much better close to the line than they are 30 yards off of it.
That created a bit of a vacuum, where two above-average — but not great — cornerbacks were being tasked with handling receivers in single-coverage all season long, with no real help over the top, and with three linebackers in the middle that rarely, if ever actually helped to stop the pass. It doesn’t take $1.5 million paid to a professional coach to see why that’s an issue, or at least it shouldn’t. With no help, Arnette and Sheffield were put on islands, and unable to focus on making plays. That frequently led to broken coverage, or, as every Ohio State fan will tell you, pass interference.
In 2019, those problems should be gone, or so it seems. The coaches responsible for the scheme are in Norman, Foxborough, Tempe and Oakland. Sheffield is off to the NFL, despite tearing his pectoral muscle at the NFL Combine. Both starting safeties are back, but their problems from last year are a different story. Arnette is the lone survivor to emerge from the rubble, and he’s expected by many to serve as more of a slot-corner this year, as he should’ve been for his whole career.
With Arnette moving into that role, Ohio State needs two new outside corners, and they need a return to the swagger, confidence, and raw talent that we saw for years under the guidance of Kerry Coombs before he departed to the Tennessee Titans. Luckily for the Buckeyes, two former five-star recruits have waited their turn (arguably for too long), and it’s time for their breakout.
It’s time for Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade to take center stage.
The Rose Bowl may have been a preview for the 2019 season, at least in terms of this defensive backfield. After a first quarter filled mostly with Arnette and Sheffield, Ohio State went young for the final three, with Wade and Okudah on the field for nearly every play for the rest of the game.
While quite a few of the problems that we saw from the defense all season persisted against Washington, Okudah and Wade looked like part of the solution. They still struggled at times, but they flashed the immense talent that they were both known for when they came out of high school.
They deflected passes, they showed their closing speed, they tackled, and — unlike the corners they sat behind all season on the depth chart — they looked confident and ready to play, even in a system that very few could possibly succeed in.
Despite a year of wasted development under a group of coaches that were either uninterested or unable, Wade and Okudah looked like the stars that they were recruited to be. They played with the kind of energy that early Meyer teams thrived on, and that so constantly evaded the late teams.
With a new staff, and a new head coach, Ohio State is once again ready to embrace that kind of energy, that hunger, that spirit of competition that was so often preached in 2012-14 that went out the door as soon as veteran players were gifted starting jobs over the past four seasons.
All of this, the talk about Okudah and Wade, the general feeling around Ohio State right now about things being fresh and new, comes with a lot of assumptions. We’re assuming that Day can and will bring energy and hunger back to Ohio State. We’re assuming that a new coaching staff will correct the mistakes of the old staff and dole out starting jobs and playing time according to talent, rather than age. We’re assuming young players will no longer be forced to prove that they can tackle a kickoff returner just so that they can get a shot at a job occupied by someone very obviously less talented. None of that is a given.
Who knows, maybe Day took everything Meyer told him to heart, and feels a loyalty to his veteran players much like Meyer did. Maybe everything will stay the exact same, and Ohio State will continue to win 11 games every year on talent alone, with hopes to get embarrassed by Clemson in the College Football Playoff serving as the peak for a program with no hunger or urgency.
Maybe the grind of the last four years will persist through all of the changes, and Ohio State will remain what it has been for much of its history: a great program, hell, a top-five program, that has no idea how much better it could be if it just got out of its own way.
The hopes, energy, and feeling of renewal in Columbus all come from assumptions that things will be different. They come from seeing Clemson, a program considered by many Buckeye fans to only now be approaching Ohio State’s level, absolute clobber the greatest dynasty in college football history, thanks in large part to their complete disregard for experience, replaced with an affinity for talent.
If Ohio State wants to beat Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma or Georgia, it desperately needs to adopt the practices that those teams discovered several years ago. Ohio State needs the best, fastest, meanest 22 players that they can find on the field. It doesn’t matter how old they are, how many years they’ve started, or how close they are with the head coach.
That starts at the cornerback spot, and it starts with two guys who can no longer even be considered young. Shaun Wade and Jeffrey Okudah have waited, toiled, and sat behind inferior talents. They’re done waiting, and they’re going to take the job they probably should’ve had a year earlier. Ohio State is entering a new era, and they’re doing so with a new duo of lockdown corners. Columbus is, once again, a no fly zone.