COLUMBUS, Ohio — Urban Meyer produced a pair of national championship defenses at Florida, both of which ranked in the Top 10 in the country. But when he needed to overhaul Ohio State’s subpar unit last winter, Meyer couldn’t fall back on a successful scheme from 2006 or ’08.
“The offenses have changed so much since our days at Florida,” he said in an interview Sunday. “We were a man-free [safety], Cover 2 team. Spread offenses would tear that apart.”
All manner of offenses tore apart the Buckeyes’ 2013 defense, even as Ohio State won its first 12 contests and reached the Big Ten championship game. Normally run-heavy Wisconsin threw for 295 yards in Ohio State’s conference opener. Northwestern completed 25-of-31 attempts for 343 yards the following week. And a previously dysfunctional Michigan offense erupted for 603 total yards in the teams’ Thanksgiving weekend rivalry game.
The Buckeyes survived those scares, but the wheels finally came off in their season-ending losses to Michigan State (34-24 in Indianapolis) and Clemson (40-35 in the Orange Bowl). Ohio State was hardly lacking for talent what with a consensus All-American linebacker (Ryan Shazier), a first-round NFL cornerback (Bradley Roby) and a roster full of former blue-chippers. So Meyer deemed it time to change the scheme.
“I wanted to change our pass defense,” he said. “I wanted a challenge-every-throw mentality.”
The man Meyer charged with implementing that vision is new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, 40, who first caught his new boss’ attention as the opposing defensive coordinator in a 21-14 Ohio State overtime win at Wisconsin in 2012. When former Buckeyes co-coordinator Everett Withers became James Madison’s head coach last winter, Meyer asked offensive coordinator Tom Herman to reach out to Ash, his former Iowa State colleague.
“[Meyer] said he wanted a defense that challenges the offense, that’s aggressive, that will attack, not worry about the ‘what ifs,’ create confusion,” said Ash. “Those are things I believe in to be successful. When he started talking my language, I started listening.”
Ash, who spent last season at Arkansas, believes specifically in an aggressive 4-3 defense – as indicated by the title of his 2011 instructional DVD. His simplified playbook involves a base Cover 4 scheme and requires his cornerbacks to play in-your-face press coverage of receivers. If executed properly, it may closely resemble that of Ohio State’s new Big Ten nemesis, Michigan State, which led the nation in total defense last season under respected coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
“When you look at what we’re doing now compared to what [Ohio State] did a year ago,” said Ash, “it is a completely different philosophy.”
It’s also one he believes “fits exactly” the personnel he inherited, which includes a highly touted defensive line and quick, athletic defensive backs.
“I like it,” cornerback Doran Grant said of Ohio State’s new approach. “Let the athletes eat. Let the athletes be athletes.”
While Meyer is off to an impressive 24-2 start to his Ohio State tenure, the Buckeyes haven’t boasted an elite defense since Jim Tressel — now a university president — produced a Top 4 unit in what wound up his final season as coach in 2010. Since then Ohio State has finished 34th, 28th and 39th nationally in yards per play allowed and last year finished an atrocious 112th out of 125 teams in passing yards allowed (268.0 per game).
“We want to get back to what we used to be before all the nonsense with autographs and everything made the Silver Bullets fall to the wayside,” said senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett. “That’s what we’re tying to get to, where people are like, ‘Oh man, that Ohio State defense is something else.’”
If they succeed, it will likely be due in large part to Bennett’s position group up front. The Buckeyes’ defensive line is absolutely loaded. Bennett and junior defensive end Noah Spence are returning all-conference selections, while defensive end Joey Bosa was a freshman All-American last season. Spence, Bosa and junior tackle Adolphus Washington, the lone new starter, are all former five-star recruits.
Though noting they “haven’t done it yet,” Meyer doesn’t shy from comparing the group’s talent level to that of his great ’06 Florida line led by first-round ends Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss and current 49ers starter Ray McDonald.
“We all know we can be special,” Bosa said of the D-line, now under the direction of longtime Penn State assistant Larry Johnson. “We want to work as hard as we can to eventually get to that point where we are the best defensive line in the country. We truly believe we can be the best.”
Replacing last year’s massive production from Shazier, who had 143 tackles and 22.5 tackles for loss, could be daunting, though one of this year’s likely starting linebackers, Joshua Perry, recently lamented the group leaned too heavily on their star last season. The linebacking corps at least looks deep, with touted true freshmen Raekwon McMillian and Dante Booker already pushing for playing time.
But for Ash’s reinvention to work he’ll need standouts to emerge in the position group he coaches – the secondary. Though the talented Roby struggled at times last season, his early departure for the NFL left a hole to fill opposite Grant. However, Ash on Sunday raved about safeties Tyvis Powell, Vonn Bell and Cam Burrows – not just for their talent but their leadership of a group trying to put behind last year’s debacles.
“Were they disappointed in last year? Absolutely. Who couldn’t be?” said Ash. “I think there was a little loss of confidence and swagger in that room and we’ve worked hard to get that back.”
Meyer said the players weren’t the only ones who suffered in that department last season.
“There was a lack of confidence by coaches,” said Meyer, who surprised some fans by retaining embattled co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell. “Wisconsin comes in and throws all over the place on you, and what happens is coaches start losing confidence in the scheme. That’s the good thing about Chris Ash. It’s pretty simple, very adaptable. Find who that best receiver is and try to take him out of the game.”
Ash coached on three Rose Bowl teams at Wisconsin, the first of which featured future NFL star J.J. Watt, but when he speaks of the players he inherited in Columbus he sounds like a guy who walked into football nirvana.
“Collectively as a football team,” he said, “this is one of the most talented I’ve been around.”
His charge is to get that talent to reach its potential, which, at Ohio State, means reaching the first-ever College Football Playoff.
Notes from Columbus
* Ohio State coaches have remained cautionary with star quarterback Braxton Miller following offseason shoulder surgery, holding him out of the team’s first scrimmage Saturday. Meyer remains confident Miller will be 100 percent by the Aug. 30 season opener against Navy but admitted, “If the game was tomorrow, because of where he’s at, we’d be very cautious. But we have three weeks."
* Despite losing workhorse Carlos Hyde, Ohio State is deep at running back with likely starter Ezekiel Elliott, veteran Rod Smith and now true freshman Curtis Samuel, whom Meyer expects to play right away. In addition, he hopes to incorporate speedy sophomores Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson more in the running game as hybrid H-backs. “We’ll be more balanced this year,” he said.
* Offensive line remains the Buckeyes’ biggest question mark after losing four starters. Left tackle Taylor Decker and right guard Pat Elflein are the lone returnees with significant experience. However, in separate interviews Sunday, both Meyer and Herman said nearly the same exact thing. “I was genuinely worried and concerned going into training camp about that group,” said Herman, “and yet through seven practices I’m encouraged by the development I see.”
* While last week’s Power 5 autonomy vote coupled with a judge’s ruling against the NCAA in the Ed O’Bannon antitrust suit have rocked the college sports world, coaches buried in two-a-days aren’t likely the most informed on the topic. “I apologize, I probably should know more about the whole situation, I don’t,” Meyer said in response to a reporter’s question at a press conference. “I’ve got to get a team ready to play a very good Navy team.” When another reporter subsequently tried to follow up about athlete stipends, Meyer lightheartedly cut him off. “Beat Navy!” he said. “Navy!”
* The 2014 schedule Ohio State has plastered throughout its football complex lists 18 dates – 12 scheduled games, two byes, the Dec. 6 Big Ten Championship Game, the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl semifinal games and the Jan. 12 BCS (oops) National Championship game. It also leaves off the name and logo of That Team Up North.
* Finally, the Buckeyes’ snazzy new locker room features a water wall, a lounge with a wall panel of six built-in flat screens and, most useful during two-a-days, air mattresses on which the players can nap right in front of their lockers.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. Before joining FOX Sports, he covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.