Ohio State Football: Inside the Overhaul of the Nation's Most Criticized Defense

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterAugust 6, 2014

Luke Fickell is a part of one of the most important defensive overhauls in the country.
Luke Fickell is a part of one of the most important defensive overhauls in the country.Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

For the third time in four years, Luke Fickell faced the media during the first week of fall camp with a different role than the one he held the year before. But this time, the Ohio State co-defensive coordinator carried himself with a confidence that one wouldn't expect from what was one of America's most criticized coaches in 2013and for good reason.

After all, there isn't anywhere for the Buckeyes defense to go but up.

It's hard to believe that it's already been three years since Fickell was serving as Ohio State's interim head coach, a one-season stopgap between Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer.

And although the former Buckeyes defensive lineman opted to remain at his alma mater as the team's co-defensive coordinator, it'd be tough to blame him if he ever had second thoughts about that decision over the course of the past two seasons.

First came 2012, which saw Ohio State patch together a 12-0 season, despite a less-than-stellar defense that had Meyer even admitting that he had questions about his staff.

But the Buckeyes could only fill so many holes in their ship by the time last season's Big Ten Championship Game and Orange Bowl rolled around, with Ohio State surrendering a combined 1,014 yards and 74 points in its final two games of the season—both Buckeye losses.

Enter Chris Ash, the former Arkansas and Wisconsin defensive coordinator who now finds himself as Fickell's running mate on the Ohio State staff. And while Meyer's preference to Ash's defensive scheme and philosophy essentially handed Fickell a de-facto demotion, the original Silver Bullet doesn't see it that way.

"I want what’s best for this place. Coach Meyer knows that, and we talked about that from day one," Fickell said in March. "If something is better for this place, then so be it. I want what’s best for my alma mater and my university."

But now that fall camp is here, does Fickell still seem that way? It sure seems that way. And he's as confident about his defense as he's been in recent memory.

"You can say whatever you want, and obviously there's been glaring things that's been talked about like the pass defense," Fickell said. "Altogether, with everything tied together, there's going to be a lot of things that are going to be shored up."

As Fickell explained, it's going to take improvement from more than just one position group for the Buckeyes to do that. But just three days into the fall camp period, it's something that he's already seen.

Improvement from Curtis Grant could be crucial to the Buckeyes defense in 2014.
Improvement from Curtis Grant could be crucial to the Buckeyes defense in 2014.Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

Perhaps no position group has come under more scrutiny since Meyer arrived in 2012 than the linebackers, with the Buckeyes head coach repeatedly referring to them as "not Ohio State-ish" during his time in Columbus.

And while last season's leading tackler and All-American Ryan Shazier may be in the NFL, Fickell—who's personally responsible for coaching the unit—has seen steady growth from the likes of Joshua Perry, Curtis Grant, Darron Lee and even freshman Raekwon McMillan.

"Sometimes you need addition by subtraction," Fickell said of Shazier's departure. "There's five, six, seven guys whom the light really came on for. We've seen the ability for them to step up and really do some things. It's really going to be a committee."

Only aiding the linebackers' development is arguably the nation's most talented defensive line, one which OSU offensive line coach Ed Warinner said on Wednesday was the best he's ever seen.

But while starters Noah Spence, Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington may all possess All-American talent, expect an even deeper rotation as new defensive line coach Larry Johnson departs from Mike Vrabel's "the best players play" mantra.

"That's something that we probably didn't do a great job of in the past," Fickell admitted. "Coach Johnson has been doing this a long time, and he's unbelievable at what he does. He's adamant that we've gotta have nine guys. And we will. I know there will be a starting four, but we may have to refer to them as 1A and 1B."

Fickell—who has been a member of the Ohio State staff since 2002—insists that the Buckeyes' ability and improvement upfront will have a positive impact on a secondary that came under perhaps as much scrutiny as he did a season ago. Fresh faces will accompany Ohio State's fresh approach on the back end, with the Buckeyes replacing four starters from a season ago.

Doran Grant is the Buckeyes' only returning starter in the secondary in 2014.
Doran Grant is the Buckeyes' only returning starter in the secondary in 2014.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Gone are first-round cornerback Bradley Roby and senior safeties C.J. Barnett and Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown, replaced by redshirt freshman Gareon Conley and a three-man stable of safeties in Tyvis Powell, Cameron Burrows and Vonn Bell.

Only corner Doran Grant returns as a starter to the Ohio State secondary, which received much of the blame for a pass defense that ranked 118th (out of 125 teams) in passing yards surrendered per game in 2013, according to Team Rankings.

But for Fickell, it's not the scheme or the players playing it that has him excited as the Ohio State defense's newfound attitude. There may be nowhere for the Buckeyes to go but up from the end of last season, but Fickell is confident that they'll get there, regardless of what role he's serving this season.

"Not only have the kids had to grow up and handle some adversity, but the coaches have too. And change is good for all of us," Fickell said. "It's a lot harder to handle praise than it is to handle criticism. They've been beat; they've been kicked a little bit. But there's no harder critique than ourselves. We've felt that with the last three games that we've played. And it's shown."


*All quotes obtained firsthand, unless noted otherwise.