Ohio State football: Defensive coaches emphasizing how to play over what to do this spring

Ohio State is simplifying its defensive approach this spring with an eye on making it harder for opponents to decode this fall.

Co-defensive coordinators Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison along with fellow newcomers Matt Barnes and Al Washington (along with returning defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who was promoted to associated head coach), might have grand plans for changing the scheme after being hired in January, but for now they are holding off talking about them in detail in the press.

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They say spring football, which wraps up next Saturday with the annual spring game at Ohio Stadium, is more about the coaches getting to know what the players can do and the players getting to know how the coaches want them to do it,

“For right now they’ve taught us a lot of technique,” said sophomore Shaun Wade, who played multiple positions in the secondary last season and figures to do so again this fall. “They’re teaching us zone, so I know what the linebackers are doing. I know what the safeties are doing. I felt last year we didn’t know that. We didn’t know where our help was at the moment.”

Ohio State was primarily a man coverage team the past three seasons, but that figures to change under the new defensive staff.

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The 2018 defense was often out-leveraged by opponents, and one individual breakdown tended to have catastrophic effects.

Playing more zone defenses such as Cover 3, which calls for a safety and two cornerbacks to play deep, could make the unit more sound overall, but Hafley insisted they have stuck to the basics as far as scheme so far.

“Right now we’re trying to be very simple to allow our guys to learn and play very fast to allow us to evaluate ‘em,” Hafley said. “We’re putting some stuff in, but our goal in spring is to not complicate things with scheme. We want our guys to learn the basics to play fast to understand what they’re doing and play with great fundamentals and technique, and then we’ll watch the film and figure out what we have and then if we need to install more we’ll install more.”

In the back seven, Hafley confirmed there is also an effort to make sure everyone knows what everyone else is doing.

Ultimately, he hopes that will give him and the rest of the staff more options in the fall when it comes time to draw up a game plan because they will have more players who can do a variety of things.

“Our defense, the way we’re trying to build it is very plug and play,” he said. “So when I’m talking to the group, I’m explaining this position, this position and this position even if it might be a linebacker today, it might be you tomorrow, so if you can learn the why and understand the big picture then they can plug into all those spots.”

But will they look for the ball more this year? 

Wade and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah both fielded questions on a topic that was very hot last season: Playing the ball in the air.

Hafley got animated when asked about it during his introductory press conference, promising the players would be taught to do so this season after it seemed to be a team-wide weakness in 2018.

The players confirmed it has been stressed so far, though the actual technique has not changed significantly.

Instead, there is an emphasis on repetition.

“We do a drill (in which we) look up, look back at our man, look up, look back at our man, catch the ball,” said Wade. “This year he’s telling us every fly ball should be an interception because we’re gonna (play) from top down.”

All defensive backs coaches want their players to look for the ball, of course, but there are rules that determine when they should do so and when they should continuing playing their man.

Typically a player is only supposed to go for the ball if he is still step-for-step with the receiver, so ultimately being in the right position to begin with can make all the difference.

So, too, is playing with confidence, something Okudah said the players should derive from working to hone technique earlier this year the last.

“A lot of times you’d make that play if you just turned around, but just having the confidence to do it and doing it earlier on,” Okudah said. “I think it will be like you have no excuse to look back for the ball now if you’re in position.”

That’s the hope of Hafley and the other new assistants )not to mention Ohio State fans).

“I think guys are getting better every day,” Hafley said. “We just keep talking about technique, technique, technique. The great part about these guys is they are buying into everything we’re telling them. They’re coaching each other.

“Just the improvement of overall technique, that’s what spring’s about. Spring is about better culture, which brings great energy and getting better at fundamentals and technique which ultimately is gonna win and lose you games.”

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