COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Ohio State way has been almost all Luke Fickell has ever known, and for years, there wasn’t much reason to branch out and try another approach.
As a former player, the current defensive coordinator played a role in maintaining the proud tradition of the program, so he understood the demands of representing the Buckeyes. For more than a decade, he’s passed on the gospel of the Silver Bullets on to the coaching staff, surrounded by familiar faces who knew the system just as well as he did and had been a part of many wins together.
And when the results are positive, there might be little incentive to figure out what made Wisconsin so effective in bottling up passing attacks under Chris Ash or how Penn State was churning out NFL prospects on the defensive line under Larry Johnson. But when things go wrong, that comfort with the way things have always been done can become dangerous complacency for somebody unwilling to change. That said, Fickell is embracing some fresh approaches if they can help get Ohio State's defense back to an elite level.
“It’s been a great transition, to be honest with you,” Fickell said earlier this month after the second practice of spring camp working with the new-look staff. “I know we haven’t had the real stressers and the reality of a season, but I tell you, we’ve battled through a lot of things in the last month or so and it’s been a great growing experience for me. I’ve always had a little bit of a comfort level here with the people that I’ve known ... and that’s one of those things that Coach [Urban] Meyer likes to challenge you to do is get out of your comfort zone.
“Having some new guys has made me do that and has made me broaden the things that we do. It’s been a great growing experience.”
The Buckeyes certainly left themselves plenty of room to grow defensively after completely falling apart down the stretch last season on that side of the ball. The Buckeyes came up short in the Big Ten title game, fell out of contention for the national title and coughed up a lead in the Orange Bowl, which were all products of the late-season struggle.
Meyer didn’t fire any assistants after his team finished the season ranked 110th in the nation in passing defense and allowed 115 points over the final three games, but he was afforded the chance to shake up his staff after safeties coach Everett Withers left to take over as the head coach at James Madison and Mike Vrabel surprisingly left his alma mater for a position with the Houston Texans.
“I have a lot of confidence in the coaches that were here,” Meyer said. “Obviously we didn’t perform up to the standard. We won a lot of games, but there were some holes.
“Holes are very easy to blame players or blame coaches, so just overall, we need to freshen up our defense.”
Meyer has admitted that fresh voices were probably needed as part of that rebuilding job, and the offseason departures allowed him to bring in a couple of them in Ash and Johnson. The current plan still has Fickell retaining play-calling duties for the Buckeyes, but Ash in particular is expected to play a prominent role in reshaping the pass coverage -- and updating what it means to play Ohio State defense.
“The idea of sometimes bending but don’t break is not exactly the mentality that obviously Coach Meyer likes,” Fickell said. “Those are some of those things that, as we get into our third year of it, we figure out each other, and hopefully, we do a lot better job of it.
“You know, the most important thing to understand is we ask our guys to be 1 of 11. We ask them to play together, that’s why this is the greatest team sport known to man, and it’s not any different for coaches. It doesn’t matter the titles or anything like that. ... We’ll be on the same page.”
That might mean reading a slightly different textbook than the one Fickell has had for years at Ohio State, but he’s clearly open to new ideas.