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LGHL Asks: Will 2021 be a return to form for DBU?

The unit struggled in 2020, for a variety of reasons. Expect the new coaching structure and infusion of talent to bring them back to prominence.

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Red Bull in human form, Kerry Coombs will have his guys ready to put last season in the rearview mirror.
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ohio State’s secondary struggled mightily in 2020. That is like saying TTUN just missed the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes were dealt a tough hand after losing three solid starters from the previous season, but the unit, as well as the coaches, failed to live up to even modest expectations. For a school that was crowned DBU due to their ability to develop pros, the “pandemic season” was an embarrassment as far as the secondary is concerned. Fortunately, the team as a whole made up for deficiencies on the back end, and you can’t complain about a CFP appearance. However, if the team is to make a repeat run in 2021, we need to see the return of DBU — or at least something similar.

I mentioned the pandemic, because I think the chaos it created was a real detriment to Ohio State’s secondary, and the unit as a whole. No need to cry for the Buckeyes – people have dealt with worse – but this is Land Grant Holy Land, right? The 2020 offseason was started, stopped, and started again, leaving players and coaches without adequate time to prepare. Add in the lack of experience and various injuries at the postion(s), and the outcome was almost predictable.

Blame is too harsh, so let’s say that criticism for 2020 arguably needs to start with the coaching staff. Kerry Coombs returned to Columbus after two seasons with Mike Vrabel in Tennessee, and attempted to fill the role of DB coach and defensive coordinator. The results were obviously not great, but don’t forget that the Buckeyes did have a great run defense. Perhaps Coombs was overwhelmed wearing two hats, and that should be remedied in 2021.

Matt Barnes is now the primary secondary coach, and his familiarity with the guys in the room should only help. He was previously helping with the secondary, while also splitting his time with the special teams. He is now focused on one position group, and Coombs will be freed up to oversee the entire unit, while surely giving feedback to Barnes and his guys. For what it’s worth, I think Coach Coombs deserves the benefit of the doubt. This guy has worked wonders with defensive backs for the last 15 years, especially during his time at Ohio State. He may even be considered the founder of DBU. I can’t imagine that many first-time defensive coordinators were shutting down opponents last year, especially if they dealt with a similarly hectic offseason.

Inexperience was also a big factor in the Buckeyes’ regression. Shaun Wade moved outside after making a name for himself in the slot, and the results were simply not good. Wade had his moments, but he clearly belongs in the slot — or he just needs much more time to develop as an outside stopper. Either way, OSU was counting on him to lock down the opposition, and that clearly did not happen… the Indiana game and Ty Fryfogle still give me nightmares.

Sevyn Banks continued his development on the opposite side, and there is breakout potential for him in 2021. He is already being projected to go in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, and if he can become what we hoped Shaun Wade was going to be last year, that will go a long way in helping the secondary improve as a whole. The rest of the 2020 unit was Josh Proctor and “some guys”, and they fought with depth issues for the entire shortened season.

Not much went right for the Ohio State secondary, so it’s easy to say that 2021 can only be better, right? Well I am here to tell you: hell yes! Kerry Coombs will be taking a more hands-off approach, but he can now be more CEO than supervisor. He needs to trust Barnes, but I don’t foresee that being an issue. The entire staff seems to love Barnes, and he is familiar with all the players in the DB room.

When it comes to inexperience, injury, and depth, it can’t really get much worse than what the Buckeyes dealt with last season. Even though the secondary wildly underperformed, the players in that group were still able to gain experience from it. Another year older, another year wiser. Sometimes you learn the most from failure, and we’re all hoping that is the case for the Ohio State DB’s.

Injuries are going to happen, but OSU will enter the season mostly healthy, and they have impressive depth to deal with any losses. Cameron Brown was expected to play a role in 2020, and he is back ready to go. His injury last season robbed him of a year playing as the likely #3 or #4 corner, but he should be a steady presence opposite Banks. At the very least, he has reps! He, Marcus Williamson, Josh Proctor and others should all be improved from last season. The veterans will be joined by a stable of young studs, and their presence should give Ohio State fans plenty of reason for excitement about the potential return of DBU.

The OSU secondary may start to benefit from a talent infusion the likes of which they have not seen in a while. The Marshon Lattimore/Denzel Ward/Jeff Okudah-types have continued the tradition of DBU, but this 2021 team has a depth of talent that is very impressive. Denzel Burke, Jordan Hancock, and Jakailin Johnson lead a talented group of true freshman. Guys like Ryan Watts, Lathan Ransom, and Lejond Cavazos are all in their second year with the program — and finally got a “normal” offseason of development. There are approximately 100 recruiting stars in the room, and I expect some of the young players to push veterans. If vets aren’t getting the job done, Coombs and Barnes should be quick to change it up. Same goes for the Bullet position, which I am quasi-including in this discussion, but the usage is still TBD.

We may not see a full return to form for Ohio Stat’s secondary in 2021, but I expect a big rebound season. Maybe OSU reaches DB little “u” status while giving the young talent time to develop. Kerry Coombs is too good a coach to let 2020 repeat itself. He was one of the best secondary coaches in the country, and deserves a bit of a do-over. If the unit does not improve, maybe it is part of a bigger issue. The talent in the room is incredible, they likely just need(ed) time to gel and get their reps. This offseason afforded them the opportunity to do so. DBU will be back, so let’s enjoy the climb back to the top.