After Ohio State’s disastrous defensive performance in its Week 2 loss against then-No. 12 Oregon, head coach Ryan Day was forced to make necessary changes to the way his defensive staff operated.
These wholesale changes led to defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs losing his play-calling privileges and moving from the sideline to the press box to assist on the defensive calls from there. Since Coombs relinquished his play-calling duties, the Buckeyes’ defense has greatly improved — allowing just 14.25 points per game since Week 3.
Although it has been what Coombs described as “the hardest stretch of my professional career,” he said sulking or quitting never crossed his mind.
“In my opinion, handling it in a different fashion — picking up your ball and going home, kicking a can down the road, quitting, packing your stuff up, being a miserable human being — if I had done those things, that would make me a liar to every one of those young men that I’ve coached along the way that have had tough times,” Coombs said.
Despite struggling with the changes made, Coombs remained committed to his players and fellow coaches.
“I love those kids in that locker room, I love those kids on this team. I love the men I work with and I love Ohio State,” Coombs said. “I’m going to be here. I’m going to be fighting, battling, scratching and clawing for the remainder of this season to help us win every freaking Saturday.”
Following the Buckeyes’ most recent game — a 66-17 win over Maryland — Day awarded Coombs with the game ball, citing his continued work ethic despite a difficult season for the legendary former Colerain High School head coach.
“You don’t act that selflessly without really loving Ohio State, Buckeye Nation and these kids,” Day said. “When you see something like that, you need to call it out for what it is.”
Although Coombs earned the honor typically bestowed upon a Buckeye who stood out during a game, he said he was a little embarrassed and felt undeserving of the game ball.
However, sophomore linebacker Cody Simon emphasized that no one was more worthy of the post-game honor.
“He’s been through a lot, but nothing has changed for him. Every day he comes in with the most amount of energy, he’s always ready to go,” Simon said. “I appreciate him because not everything goes your way, but he’s stuck through it. He’s still doing his thing.”
Coombs’ play-calling struggles started prior to the start of the 2021 season, as the Coombs-called 2020 defense allowed 401.6 total yards per game and a conference-worst 304 yards through the air per game.
Ohio State’s defensive struggles in 2020 culminated in a 52-24 blowout loss to Alabama in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship — a game in which the Buckeyes allowed then-Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones to throw for 464 yards and five touchdowns.
The Buckeyes’ defensive play-calling in that game was on display late in the second quarter, when then-Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith found himself in one-on-one coverage with then-Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland — a tremendous mismatch for Smith. The Heisman trophy winner trotted past Borland for an easy 42-yard touchdown, his third of the first half.
After that game, Day said changes were needed in the defensive staff, but Coombs remained at the helm heading into the 2021 season. The wheels came off against the Ducks, where the Buckeyes allowed 505 total yards — 269 of which came on the ground.
As the 2021 iteration of the Buckeyes’ defense sported seven new starters, Coombs said he’s seen the unit’s confidence grow since that rough outing in Week 2.
“I think the confidence has come from experience,” Coombs said. “I think that is the biggest marker going forward. I think our kids, things that they didn’t know or they were hesitant about themselves, separate from the defense and all that, now they feel like, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ ”
Since that bout with the Ducks, secondary coach Matt Barnes has taken over defensive play-calling duties from Coombs. The Buckeyes have seen major improvements in that span as they have held their last three opponents below 350 total yards.
Having worked together in the secondary last season, Coombs said their relationship goes deeper than their job titles.
“I think he’s a very good coach. I think relationships are and always should go well beyond whatever our job descriptions, titles and those things are. Otherwise, they’re pretty fragile,” Coombs said. “We worked well together before, I think we work well together now.”
With the change in play-calling duties, Coombs — who has been a staple as a sideline presence — was forced to swap spots with Barnes, sending Coombs up to the press box.
Although the move has kept him away from one of his favorite parts of coaching — interacting with his players — Coombs said it has been valuable to his knowledge of the game.
“I had not been in the press box in a long time,” Coombs said. “It’s been something that has enhanced my ability to see the game, communicate the game. I think that has been a real strength over the last couple of weeks.”
Despite the major shift in his responsibilities, Coombs emphasized that his confidence has never wavered and his focus is still on helping this team to its primary goal of a national title.
“When you’re a part of a team, whether everything is going the way you want it to go or not, you’re still part of that team,” Coombs said. “It doesn’t shake my confidence in my ability to do the job. I’ve been doing this a long time, I’m not going to walk out of here fearful.”