Extreme Makeover: Ohio State’s Defensive Coaching Staff Edition

(Matthew Emmons / USA Today Sports)

What a whirlwind of a first nine days it’s been for Ryan Day, after he officially became the Ohio State Buckeyes head football coach at 12:01 a.m. ET last January 2, hours after the conclusion of the Rose Bowl. Having already added a number of recruits and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich into the fold, Day shifted his focus to the other side of the ball.

With the Silver Bullets struggling as much as they did for much of this past fall, a change was needed. Whether it was allowing 404 total yards (71st in total defense), 158.8 rushing yards per game, or allowing 25.5 points per game (50th), along with the opposing offenses’ big plays, or just the overall underwhelming season for the defense, when Day was named Urban Meyer’s successor, it was only a matter of time before he overhauled the defensive coaching staff.

He did just that this week, replacing every coach on that side of the ball not named Larry Johnson. Greg Schiano, Alex Grinch, Bill Davis, have all been replaced.1 While the defensive coaching staff will look much different going forward, it was a much-needed change.

First and foremost, it’s important to note that Johnson was the only coach retained by Day on that side of the ball, as stated previously. With how well the defensive line has played, along with all of the talent they have (and will continue to) put into the NFL since he replaced Mike Vrabel prior to the 2014 season, keeping him on staff was vital. While he will continue to lead the defensive line, Johnson has also been promoted to associate head coach, which will turn into a well-deserved pay raise as well.

“Larry’s experience at Ohio State will allow him to have a major role in the guidance and direction of this program,” Day said. “His promotion to associate head coach is well earned. Larry is a wonderful teacher and mentor, and his players always become a part of his family. I am thrilled that he will continue to be a part of this program.”

Along with Johnson, the rest of the defensive coaching staff will include co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley, linebackers coach Al Washington, and special teams coordinator and assistant defensive backs coach Matt Barnes.

Let’s get to know the new coaches:

Greg Mattison

If you can’t beat’em, join’em. That’s the saying, right? The first (of three) former Michigan assistants to move from Ann Arbor to Columbus, Mattison brings plenty of experience to the Silver Bullets. While Day went the young route for many of his assistants, that can’t be said for his new co-defensive coordinator. Mattison is 69 years old and brings four decades of coaching experience with him.

Florida’s co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach from 2005-07, Mattison helped lead the Gators to a national championship when Meyer was the head coach of Florida. Now, he’s going to try and help the guy that has replaced Meyer at Ohio State.

Although he is technically the co-defensive coordinator, Mattison is the only coach on the staff that has coordinator experience, so he will likely play a key role in leading the way, both as a play-caller and in preparation.2 He has served as the Wolverines defensive line coach the last four years under Jim Harbaugh and was previously Brady Hokes defensive coordinator there from 2011-14. At the very least, Mattison will lead the way in terms of preparation for the front seven, while Hafley gets the defensive backfield prepared.

“I like having a diversity of opinion, but even more I like the expertise and experience that Jeff has in the secondary coupled with the expertise that Greg brings to the front seven,” Day said of his co-defensive coordinators.

“Greg is a terrific coach,” he said. “His experience as a coordinator and his knowledge of the Big Ten is extremely important to me.”

Mattison may not be the flashiest hire, especially given his age, but he brings plenty of experience and dominance both on the field and as a recruiter. Now, he has to continue that in order for the Buckeyes defense to improve in 2019 (and beyond).

Jeff Hafley

The most questionable hire of the four, Hafley comes to Columbus from the San Francisco 49ers. Although many didn’t expect this one, that doesn’t mean he’s a bad coach. In fact, he has recieved plenty of praise since joining the Buckeyes, both from former players and coaches.

“I love the idea of having two coordinators on defense. I like having a diversity of opinion, but even more I like the expertise and experience that Jeff has in the secondary coupled with the expertise that Greg brings to the front seven,” Day said of Hafley and Mattison.

“Jeff is a rising star and highly regarded as one of the best secondary coaches in the country. His NFL knowledge coaching the secondary is only going to enhance and improve what has become a marquee area for the Buckeyes. Greg is a terrific coach. His experience as a coordinator and his knowledge of the Big Ten is extremely important to me.

“These are two outstanding coaches and they will provide stability, wisdom and a fundamental approach to everything they teach. They will add to our culture while proving to be excellent coaches and mentors for the young men in our program.”

After spending his first 11 years as a coach at the collegiate level, he moved to the NFL in 2012 and has been there since. Just how long has it been since Halfey has been on the recruiting trail? He just created a Twitter account after the announcement that he’s joining Ohio State’s coaching staff. He is not only connected to Day due to them working together in San Francisco, but Hafley also worked under Greg Schiano when Schiano was the head coach at Rutgers in 2011.

Cleveland fans likely recognize his name. Prior to being the 49ers defensive backs coach the past three years which included working with Day in 2016, Hafley was the Browns secondary/safeties coach in 2014-15 and was in Tampa Bay in 2012-13.

Al Washington

Once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye, even if it means going to Michigan for a little to coach. A Columbus native and whose dad, Al Washington Sr., played for Woody Hayes’ Ohio State squad back in the day, Washington returns to his hometown and to his first love after just one season as the Wolverines linebackers coach.

“Al Washington is going to be a terrific addition to our coaching staff,” Day said. “I’ve known him as player and as a coach and I know his family very well. I think his familiarity with this region as a coach and as a recruiter is going to be very impactful, as will his leadership with our linebackers unit.”

Along with his connection with the scarlet and gray and Columbus, Washington and Day worked together at Boston College as well. Highly regarded for his ability to recruit, the 34-year-old has also been on Luke Fickell’s staff at Cincinnati as well. With all the connections and the fact that he was born a Buckeye,

Matt Barnes

Barnes completed the makeover when he was announced as the newest assistant for the Buckeyes on Thursday.

Although he’s not coming directly from Michigan, Barnes is the third new defensive assistant that has ties to the Wolverines. Before his last three years at Maryland, he was a defensive analyst for Michigan in 2015. This past season, Barnes served as the Terrapins special teams coordinator and linebackers coach. Whether it was kick or punt returns or coverage, Maryland was a top-tier program in all those areas under Barnes.

“Matt is a young coach who has really done a great job at Maryland,” Day said. “He’s an energy guy who has considerable knowledge of the Big Ten Conference plus experience coaching in the SEC. He’s going to work well with our staff and I’m pleased to have him on board.”

While it remains unclear how Hafley and Barens will split up coaching duties involving the secondary, Barnes’ primary responsibility will be coaching special teams. Meyer took a leading role in leading the special teams during his time at Ohio State, but Day will leave it up to an assistant this time.

  1. Grinch actually was named Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator and will receive between $1.3-1.5 million annually while leading the Sooners defense. []
  2. Mattison has spent 18 seasons as a defensive coordinator or co-coordinator, including two seasons as a coordinator in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens and six seasons – 1995-96 and 2011-14 – at Michigan. []