If your lasting memory of the 2020 season is Alabama receivers running free through the back end of Ohio State’s defense, you’re missing the bigger picture of what it took to even get to that point for the Buckeyes, but you’re also not alone because head coach Ryan Day had that game in the front of his mind when his defensive staff went through some changes this winter.
Co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison — who also coached the Sam linebackers — retired after this past season, which meant that Day would have to fill his vacated spot with another full-time coach. Rather than add a defensive coach to the staff, Day made special teams assistant Parker Fleming a full-time assistant as the Buckeyes’ special teams coordinator. He also named Matt Barnes as the team’s secondary coach, bumping him up from assistant secondary coach the year before and giving his special teams coordinator duties to Fleming.
This move puzzled some people because it was clear that Ohio State needed more help on defense than it did special teams and this move seemingly did nothing significant for the defense. There was a method to Day’s perceived madness, however, as it freed up Barnes to focus more on the defense. It also allowed Coombs to have more focus on the defense as a whole. But it wouldn’t pull him away from the secondary entirely because there are few better at coaching defensive backs than Coombs.
“First off, I thought this did two things. One it kept continuity, but two it put a little bit more attention on the back end, and coming off of that last game coming off of this season, I think that was something we had to do,” Day said back in February. “But now, Matt comes in full time and spends more time with the back end. So it does two things there: continuity, but then more of a focus on the back end.”
Barnes is now in control of the entire secondary and he is no longer pulled in two directions. He has more time to spend with his defensive backs. He also has Coombs helping him out, which is what any young secondary coach should want.
“I’m just really passionate about coaching defense,” Barnes said this spring. “For me, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to kind of dive headfirst into defense. Kerry and I have worked in chorus through this transition. Kerry remains very involved with our defensive backs.
“But I think helping him, because the back end is so heavily involved, I think maybe taking some of that and alleviating some of that stress or time spent allows him to really dive into the coordinator role and see some things that when you’re immersed in the defensive backfield, you maybe don’t see the whole picture quite as well type of thing. But hopefully it’s allowed him to have some more time to really focus on the coordinating.”
The secondary now has a more concentrated set of eyes in Matt Barnes, but also a more focused defensive coordinator in Kerry Coombs who is now better suited to get the most out of his defense.
So while defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Al Washington have the front seven covered, Barnes and Coombs can spend more time on the secondary in order to get it where it needs to be — and better than it was a year ago.
But those aren’t the only eyes watching the defensive backfield because when the Buckeyes aren’t working on special teams during practice, there is also Parker Fleming.
“I’m helping with defensive backs,” Fleming said this spring. “That was something that was new to me, but in 2019 I sat in a lot of defensive meetings in the springtime with some of my spare time, learning the defense as it was installed. I’m just passionate about football in general, and so it’s good for me, it’s good for the team. I’m kind of an offensive guy in a defensive room. And then in terms of running the drills, coach Barnes runs all the DB meetings and takes care of that, but I help him and we’ll split up and I’ll go run a drill and he’ll run and drill when we have a lot of guys going at the same time. That’s where my time is spent right now.”
The 2020 season was difficult for the Ohio State secondary and it didn’t end the way they wanted it to end. Ryan Day decided changes needed to be made and more eyes needed to be on the secondary. After a year where Matt Barnes maybe couldn’t spend as much time in the defense as he liked, he is now immersed in it. He also has Kerry Coombs and Parker Fleming there with him when they have time as well. The number of people watching the secondary has certainly increased for the Buckeyes.
It is a newer, fresher approach for Ryan Day’s defense, and one that is intended to have his defensive staff seeing with 2021 vision this year. Now all that’s left to find out is whether or not the eyes have it.