Change for the Ohio State coaching staff was necessary. The writing became visible on the wall pretty early during the 2021 season, it was just a matter of who and when. Turnover began to take place soon after the Buckeyes’ Rose Bowl victory over Utah, and I would say that the surprises were few and far between. Matt Barnes, Greg Studrawa, Kerry Coombs, and Al Washington are all gone, and we should wish them luck in all of their future endeavors. Jim Knowles, Justin Frye, Perry Eliano, and Tim Walton have been brought in, and we as Buckeye fans should be excited for the new additions.
But we’re also allowed to have trepidation regarding the unknown.
All of these new coaches are accomplished professionals in their own right. Knowles was a highly sought-after defensive coordinator, and Ohio State landed the big fish. Frye has worked with Ryan Day at multiple stops during their respective careers, and he brings a unique blend of youth and experience. Eliano just spent two seasons coaching up arguably the best CB duo in the country, and Walton is a former Buckeye captain who recently spent time coaching Jalen Ramsey — one of, if not the best, cornerbacks in the NFL.
But coaching in the Columbus fishbowl is a different animal. Expectations are much higher than that of Oklahoma State, UCLA, Cincinnati, and even Jacksonville. There are two primary goals each and every year: an undefeated season and a top-5 recruiting class. Fair or not, them’s the breaks.
The strategic coaching, the film study, the schemes — all of that will take care of itself. These new coaches will sink or swim, but the on-field product should not suffer due to lack of knowledge, experience, or effort. They know the game of football. Recruiting, on the other hand, is a different ballgame at Ohio State. And for as much as these guys have accomplished, being part of a staff that has landed a top-5 or top-10 recruiting class, is not one of those collective achievements. Spare me the Tim Walton/early 2000’s speech, because he is 14 years removed from recruiting anybody. Let’s focus on recent history.
Since 2012, OSU has generally finished inside the top-10 for recruiting on an annual basis – often landing a top-5 class. Greg Studrawa helped sign six of those classes. Al Washington and Matt Barnes played a role in three. Kerry Coombs took a detour to the NFL for two seasons, but helped lure in plenty of talent for the Buckeyes during his two stints. Those men grew accustomed to dealing with the best talent that high school football had to offer, and they succeeded in landing a bunch of recruits. Did they lose out on future stars? Sure. Did they occasionally miss on the players they did bring in? Absolutely. But that is the nature of college football. The point is, they had a seat at the table, and they have documented success on the recruiting trail. The new coaches lack that.
Barnes was the arguable exception, but he held a lower title until the 2021 season and at least kept lines of communication open during the Jeff Hafley-to-Kerry Coombs transition. Studrawa, for all the heat he took, played a role in landing national recruits like Wyatt Davis and Nicolas Petit-Frere, and did a respectable job of keeping big names such as Thayer Munford, Paris Johnson Jr., and Tegra Tshabola in-state.
As recently as last year, Coach Stud landed Donovan Jackson (the top-ranked interior lineman) out of Texas. He was better than he received credit for. Al Washington just brought in C.J. Hicks, Gabe Powers, and Sonny Styles during one recruiting cycle. Were they locks as in-state guys? Maybe. But Ohio State still had to beat out a number of schools for their services. Lastly, Kerry Coombs was just... Kerry Coombs. During his first stint with the Buckeyes, he was known as one of the best recruiters and developers of DB talent in the country. The last two years did not go according to plan, but Coombs still landed two, top-5 corners in Jordan Hancock and Jakailin Johnson during the 2021 cycle.
All of these former coaches showed the ability to bring in exceptional talent. The on-field product is largely impacted by the natural talent playing on it, so argue with the end result all you want, but these guys got a big part of the equation correct.
Now, the new coaches will be tasked with improving the X’s and O’s, while also maintaining the high standard of recruiting. I think it is fair to wonder whether or not they can be successful at both. I personally have a ton of confidence that the strategy and preparation will not fall off. In fact, I believe things will improve. But I am more dubious about the recruiting aspect. I would love to be proven a fool.
As I alluded to earlier, Walton’s addition is my biggest concern. He clearly possesses a great defensive mind, and former players rave about him, but it has been well over a decade since he recruited at the college level. He has been dealing with well-compensated, mature adults, and will now need to pivot to selling a college program to teenagers. Is he selling a great product? Hell yes. That doesn’t make it easy to close the deal. With the new NIL rules in place, college football recruiting exists in an entirely different universe than the one Walton was used to in Baton Rouge or Coral Gables.
Knowles, Frye, and Eliano are at least familiar with the current landscape, but OSU is a big step up in profile and aforementioned expectations. The Ohio State brand is a major advantage, but recruits will still want to hear how you plan to make them successful – and how you plan on helping their future earning potential. These men are not off-the-radar nobodies, but their collective pedigree does not match that of the outgoing staff. Remember the previous stops of the former coaches (excluding Barnes): Studrawa was at Maryland, but spent seven years at LSU before that. Al Washington came from TTUN, and Coombs left the NFL to return to Columbus.
Now compare that to the former positions of these incoming coaches. Knowles left what can only be considered a semi-contender in Oklahoma State, Frye is coming in from UCLA, and Eliano from Cincinnati. Yes, I understand that the Bearcats just played in a CFP. But prior to working with Luke Fickell, the new safeties coach was at UTSA, Bowling Green, and New Mexico. I am not saying these guys can’t recruit at a high level. I’m just saying that it will be a new, more difficult experience than what they are used to. Were the previous coaches an example of a bird in the hand? I guess we’ll find out.
Despite my somewhat skeptical nature, I do believe that these new Ohio State coaches will ultimately find success on the recruiting trail. But maybe it takes a year or two. While that sounds like an eternity in Buckeye Land, we might have to temper our expectations. The on-field product is going to be a major influence on these coaches’ ability to recruit, at least initially. As lesser known commodities, their biggest selling point is going to be the results. If the Buckeyes continue to win, the talent will come, and these coaches will become household names with the best high school talent in the country. And if Ryan Day believes they can produce a winning team on the field, then who am I to say otherwise?
On-field victories will lead to recruiting victories, and hopefully this new staff is ready to dominate in both areas.