Ohio State Buckeyes: Everett Withers

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.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer, Luke Fickell
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsLuke Fickell's 2013 Ohio State defense didn't live up to the standards Urban Meyer wants in Columbus.
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.
Non-Minnesota fans might have missed Friday's official announcement that Mike Sherels has been promoted to Gophers linebackers coach after serving on the team's recruiting staff. Sherels is the first new assistant Jerry Kill has hired in his Minnesota tenure, but the move likely signified -- likely being the operative word -- something bigger for the Big Ten.

The end of the coaching carousel for 2014.

This post always includes a reminder that additional coaching changes still can happen, even though most of the Big Ten has started spring practice. It's the nature of the business.

Despite two new teams in the Big Ten, the number of overall changes in the league dropped for the second consecutive year, going from 32 in 2013 to 27 this year. There was only one complete staff overhaul, at Penn State, and four programs -- Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern -- kept all of their coaches from last season. After replacing more than half of his staff in the last offseason, Illinois' Tim Beckman hopes continuity pays off in what likely will be a make-or-break 2014 campaign. Iowa is back to its stable self after two years of coaching flux, while Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hasn't made a staff change since after the 2010 season. Michigan State made a major commitment to Mark Dantonio and his assistants after the Spartans' Rose Bowl win, but it's still impressive that Dantonio retained the entire staff after such a great season.

Both Rutgers and Maryland have some new faces on staff before their inaugural season of Big Ten play. Rutgers has two new coordinators (one outside hire, one promotion), while Maryland has new assistants overseeing both lines.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
Michael R. Sisak/Icon SMILongtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson moved to Ohio State this offseason after James Franklin was hired as the Nittany Lions' head coach.
Other than Penn State, Indiana and Rutgers are the only teams featuring two new coordinators in 2014. Although IU assistant Kevin Johns previously held the co-offensive coordinator title, he'll be the main man, as he takes over for Seth Littrell.

For the most part, the coaches leaving Big Ten programs did so voluntarily and for potentially better positions. Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien took the same role with the Houston Texans, while two assistants -- Ohio State's Everett Withers and Maryland's Greg Gattuso -- left to become FCS head coaches at James Madison and Albany, respectively. The Big Ten lost several assistants to the NFL, as O'Brien brought four assistants with him from Penn State (John Butler, Stan Hixon, Charles London and Anthony Midget) and swiped another from Ohio State's staff (Mike Vrabel). Wisconsin also lost running backs coach Thomas Hammock to the Baltimore Ravens.

Arguably the most interesting move took place within the league, as longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson replaced Vrabel at Ohio State.

OK, let's get to it already.

Here's the rundown of coaching changes (head coach and full-time assistants only; number of new coaches in parentheses):

INDIANA (3)

Who's gone?

Doug Mallory, defensive coordinator/safeties
Seth Littrell, offensive coordinator/QBs
Jon Fabris, defensive line

Who's in?

Brian Knorr, defensive coordinator/defensive ends/outside linebackers
Larry McDaniel, defensive line
Noah Joseph, safeties


Other moves

Promoted Kevin Johns to main offensive coordinator. Johns also now coaches quarterbacks in addition to wide receivers.
Moved James Patton from assistant defensive line/special teams to tight ends and fullbacks

MARYLAND (3)

Who's gone?

Tom Brattan, offensive line
Lee Hull, wide receivers
Greg Gattuso, defensive line

Who's in?

Greg Studwara, offensive line
Keenan McCardell, wide receivers
Chad Wilt, defensive line

MICHIGAN (1)

Who's gone?

Al Borges, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks

Who's in?

Doug Nussmeier, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks

Other moves

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is overseeing linebackers instead of defensive linemen
Mark Smith moves from linebackers to defensive line
Roy Manning moves from outside linebackers to cornerbacks
Curt Mallory will coach only safeties rather than the entire secondary

MINNESOTA (1)

Who's gone?

Bill Miller, linebackers/assistant head coach

Who's in?

Mike Sherels, linebackers (promoted from recruiting staff)

Other moves

Pat Poore moves from wide receivers to running backs
Brian Anderson moves from running backs to wide receivers


NEBRASKA (1)

Who's gone?

Terry Joseph, secondary

Who's in?

Charlton Warren, secondary

OHIO STATE (2)

Who's gone?

Everett Withers, co-defensive coordinator/safeties
Mike Vrabel, defensive line

Who's in?

Chris Ash, co-defensive coordinator/safeties
Larry Johnson, defensive line/assistant head coach

PENN STATE (10)

Who's gone?

Bill O'Brien, head coach/offensive playcaller
John Butler, defensive coordinator/cornerbacks
Charlie Fisher, quarterbacks
Stan Hixon, wide receivers/assistant head coach
Larry Johnson, defensive line
Charles London, running backs
Mac McWhorter, offensive line
Ron Vanderlinden, linebackers
John Strollo, tight ends
Anthony Midget, safeties

Who's in?

James Franklin, head coach
John Donovan, offensive coordinator/tight ends
Bob Shoop, defensive coordinator/safeties
Charles Huff, running backs/special teams
Brett Pry, co-defensive coordinator/linebackers
Josh Gattis, wide receivers/assistant special teams
Herb Hand, offensive line
Ricky Rahne, quarterbacks
Sean Spencer, defensive line
Terry Smith, cornerbacks

PURDUE (1)

Who's gone?

Jon Heacock, defensive backs

Who's in?

Taver Johnson, defensive backs

RUTGERS (4)

Who's gone?

Dave Cohen, defensive coordinator/linebackers
Ron Prince, offensive coordinator
Rob Spence, quarterbacks
Damian Wroblewski, offensive line

Who's in?

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Bob Fraser, linebackers/special teams
Mitch Browning, offensive line
Ben McDaniels, wide receivers

Other moves

Promoted special teams coordinator Joe Rossi to defensive coordinator
Anthony Campanile is coaching only tight ends after overseeing both tight ends and wide receivers

WISCONSIN (1)

Who's gone?

Thomas Hammock, running backs/assistant head coach

Who's in?

Thomas Brown, running backs

Big Ten makes progress in diversity

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
9:00
AM ET
The Big Ten likes to consider itself a leader on many fronts in college sports. Several Big Ten schools were among the first to integrate their football programs, and the first two African-American head football coaches in a major conference called the league home.

But for much of this century, when it came to football coaching diversity, the Big Ten lagged behind the rest of the nation.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithPenn State's decision to hire James Franklin as its first African-American head football coach can't be underestimated.
After the third African-American head coach in league history -- Michigan State's Bobby Williams -- was fired late in the 2002 season, the conference went a decade without another black head football coach. The Big Ten was the only one of the six BCS AQ conferences that did not have at least one African-American head coach during that span; the SEC, by contrast, had four in the same time frame.

Thankfully, things have begun to improve. Two of the last three head coaches hired in the Big Ten -- Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Penn State's James Franklin -- are African-American.

"That's great news, to have that diversity," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "Now we just need to give them time and let them be successful where they are and develop their programs. I'm glad there is progress, and we need to continue to do more across the country."

There weren't a lot of opportunities, period, for head coaching jobs in the Big Ten during the recent diversity drought, as schools like Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State remained mostly stable at the top. But coaching turnover has increased in the league in the past few years; Penn State, for instance, just hired its second coach in three years after going nearly a half-century without a transition.

Was improving diversity a league-wide priority? Conference officials say no.

"What our schools try to do is hire the best coaches in their pool," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "We've had plenty of African-American basketball coaches.

"It's more about a commitment to opportunity and a fair process, and as long as our people are hiring the best people in processes that are open, you would hope and think that it would be sort of a broad representation of people. Whether you hire James Franklin or a new coach at any place, I'm not sure race should be the factor. Certainly people wouldn't want it to be a factor. It's really an outcome."

Still, it's hard not to note the importance of Penn State hiring its first African-American head football coach. More so than Dennis Green or Francis Peay at Northwestern or even Williams at Michigan State, Franklin is leading a flagship, blue-blood program. The timing was fortuitous, as the Pennsylvania native was ready for a new challenge after proving himself at Vanderbilt and the Nittany Lions needed a dynamic new leader.

“It’s a lot of significance," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "We hired James because of the kind of person and coach he is. The fact he’s African American is great. It’s a great testimony to opportunity. A hundred years ago, that wouldn’t have happened in this country."

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
AP Photo/Ting Shen/Triple Play New MediaBig Ten commissioner Jim Delany said the hiring process should be fair and a commitment to opportunity for all coaches.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports hasn't yet released its annual hiring report card for college football. But Richard Lapchick, the center's director, said the Big Ten's recent moves are "definitely a sign of progress." While there are only 11 FBS black head coaches heading into the 2014 season, it's noteworthy that minorities have gotten opportunities to lead storied programs like Penn State and Texas (Charlie Strong), Lapchick said.

"That's critically important," he said. "Historically, the opportunities in general that have gone to African-American coaches have been at programs that have been really down, and the opportunities to turn them around have been very problematic. Let's hope [Hazell and Franklin] are successful, because they will help create more opportunities for other African-American and Latino coaches in FBS conferences."

The next step for the Big Ten is to continue to develop and identify the next wave of minority head coaching candidates. Both Franklin and Hazell, who led Kent State for two seasons before Purdue hired him, had already established themselves as winning head coaches elsewhere, though Hazell was also a well-regarded assistant at Ohio State. The Big Ten sent several African-American assistant coaches to the annual minority coaches' forum between 2006 and 2010, and some athletic directors see it as their job to mentor young black coaches.

Smith saw Everett Withers leave the Buckeyes staff this winter to land the James Madison head coaching job and said he is spending time this offseason with running backs coach Stan Drayton to get Drayton accustomed to non-football issues like university budgets and policies.

"We want to have guys who are trained to hopefully win in the interview process," Smith said. "Sometimes, those are beauty contests. You've got to be able to answer the questions the right way and demonstrate an ability to lead."

That's the ultimate goal, to have more minority candidates who are ready when those opportunities do arise. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said that wasn't the case a few years ago, but the pool of potential coaches is increasing.

"We’re starting to see more and more diversity among the coaching staffs and up-and-coming diverse candidates in all various positions in the sport," Brandon said. "Now, we're seeing more representation at the head coaching level. That was bound to happen and important to have happen, and I'm glad to see that trend evolve."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The job responsibilities are mostly easy to identify for the newest and final addition to the Ohio State coaching staff.

A tattered pass defense is in need of renovation, and Chris Ash has a track record that suggests he is the right guy to lead it. An influx of aggression is required, and there are literally instructional videos with his name on them on how best to bring it defensively. Anybody working for Urban Meyer had better know how to recruit, and the recommendations were glowing in that area as well.

But there is one part of the gig that remains a bit fuzzy, and Ash did his part to keep it that way shortly after his hiring was finally and officially announced by the Buckeyes on Thursday.

If Ash is the new play-caller for the Ohio State defense, he didn’t have any desire to come out and confirm it. And if that role does belong to him, Ash made clear it’s not one he will be handling alone, anyway.

[+] EnlargeChris Ash
Robin Alam/Icon SMIChris Ash didn't divulge which of the co-defensive coordinators would be making the defensive calls at Ohio State next season.
“We’ve had those discussions, but I’m not here to take anybody’s job; I’m not here to try to get credit for the things that we will do in the future,” Ash said by phone on Thursday night. “I’m here to help make a difference, and I don’t need anything to make me come here other than the fact that I wanted to learn and grow and be a part of Ohio State. That’s it.

“As we move forward as a defensive staff, it’s going to be a staff defense, it’s going to be a staff philosophy. We’re going to do everything as a staff and everyone is going to have ownership. That’s what I believe in. I know that’s what Luke Fickell believes in, and that’s the direction we’re going to go.”

That teamwork, collaborative spirit and an ability to get everybody on the same page is certainly important, and there’s little doubt that making sure there’s input from the staff has value. But somebody has to make the final call on game day, and the Buckeyes have something of a delicate situation on their hands right now that has nothing to do with designating a pair of assistants as co-coordinators.

Ash might not be coming to campus with the intent to take any duties away from a current staff member, and in terms of his title, he’s filling the exact position that Everett Withers held before leaving to take over at James Madison. But after successfully calling the shots at major programs during previous stops at Wisconsin and Arkansas, and then being sought out by Meyer thanks to their shared philosophy, it would seem only natural that Ash would be brought in to provide a fresh perspective and a new voice to deliver the play calls.

That’s a task Fickell has been handling since Meyer arrived, and Fickell filled an even larger role before that while serving as the interim head coach in 2011 after Jim Tressel was fired. Fickell is both loyal to his alma mater and well compensated, but having what amounts to top billing on the defensive staff stripped from him in favor of a newcomer -- after already being passed over for the top job -- could be a difficult pill to swallow.

That’s obviously a decision for Meyer, one that in all likelihood was made before he approached Ash at the coaches’ convention to see if he was interested in joining the Buckeyes. And if there has been a change in the pecking order, it perhaps wasn’t Ash’s place to reveal it just hours after he was formally confirmed.

Either way, Ash had no trouble keeping his focus on the importance of the overall staff, and it’s plain to see he’s not looking to be viewed as a savior for a defense that ranked 110th in the nation in passing yardage allowed last season. But there is no question he’s a big part of the equation, one way or the other.

“I think at the end of the day, Coach Meyer has a vision for what he wants on the football field for his defense, and he wants an aggressive unit,” Ash said. “He wants a defensive back who will challenge receivers. He wants a defense that makes an offense work for everything that they can get, both in the run game and the pass game. That’s what I believe in, that’s my philosophy and that’s what I want to do; that’s what I want to bring here to Ohio State.

“Whether they were conservative or not, whatever the issues were in the past, that’s not for me to decide or comment on. I’m only concerned about what Coach Meyer’s vision is and about us as a defensive staff working together to bring that vision to life.”

That’s a job for more than one guy, and there’s at least no mystery about that.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If he couldn't get the guy behind the instructional videos, Urban Meyer might have bought them anyway for the next assistant coach he hired.

Instead, the Ohio State coach will get both the brains behind the three-part series, "Aggressive 4-3 Defense" and maybe a few free copies to pass around at the office as well.

The title of the videos alone certainly would have piqued Meyer's interest in Chris Ash as a candidate to be co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach, particularly because there has seemed to be a disconnect at times in the last two seasons between what he envisions from his defense and what he's seen on the field. And it's probably not a coincidence that those instructional videos were mentioned in the release on Thursday that finally confirmed Ash's hiring away from Arkansas, where he served for a year as the defensive coordinator after following Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeChris Ash
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChris Ash, shown in 2011 with Wisconsin, will play a big role in rebuilding Ohio State's defense.
There was plenty more for Meyer to like in Ash, from his previous success in the Big Ten to the recommendations about his recruiting skills and a likely first-hand account of his coaching style from Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, as Herman and Ash worked together at Iowa State. The news release made no mention of whether Ash will inherit the defensive play-calling duties from Luke Fickell when he arrives, and in terms of title, the co-defensive coordinator/safeties role is identical to the one Everett Withers held before leaving to take over at James Madison.

But it seems logical to bet that a shared philosophy with Meyer might give Ash an edge to become the voice of the unit as the staff collectively tries to repair an enormously flawed passing defense heading into the 2014 season.

“To me, to be successful, I think you have to be detailed,” Ash said in a school release. “You have to be able to coach and teach the fundamentals of the game, and that’s how you develop players. You have to have a consistency with how you prepare yourself so you can prepare them and then get them to play hard.”

Effort never seemed like much of an issue for the Buckeyes last season, and despite not having ideal depth -- and then dealing with key injuries on top of that -- there should have been enough talent on hand to avoid finishing No. 110 in the country in passing yardage allowed. Whether Ash is making the calls or not, his first priority will be fixing that glaring concern for the Buckeyes, who had their hopes of winning the Big Ten, competing for the national championship and then a BCS bowl victory spoiled by giving up big passing performances down the stretch.

The Buckeyes lose safety C.J. Barnett, star cornerback Bradley Roby and, assuming any additional appeals for a redshirt don't come through, safety Christian Bryant. Even without that trio, Ash will still have plenty to work with in the secondary. The Buckeyes arguably have recruited better than any program in the country in the defensive backfield over the last two seasons. They return undervalued cornerback Doran Grant and nickelback Tyvis Powell and also have a potential star in rising sophomore Vonn Bell heading into spring practice.

The Buckeyes have seen before that it takes more than just a collection of individual talent to shut down a passing game, of course. But there's an instructional manual with some tips on the market, and the guy who put it together is officially coming to town to offer his expertise on how to implement it.
While Penn State searched for a coach in December 2011, Urban Meyer convinced several Penn State recruits to switch their pledges to Ohio State. Top defensive line prospects like Noah Spence and Tommy Schutt were among those who went from Blue and White to Scarlet and Gray.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesThe rivalry between Ohio State and Penn State could heat up if former PSU defensive line coach Larry Johnson joins Urban Meyer's staff.
Penn State hired a new coach on Saturday in James Franklin, but Meyer once again has used Penn State's situation to bolster Ohio State's defensive line.

Hours after longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson announced he wouldn't remain in Happy Valley despite Franklin offering him an assistant position, Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel and ESPN's Joe Schad reported that Johnson was nearing an agreement to join Meyer's staff at Ohio State. The Buckeyes must replace Mike Vrabel, who has taken a post with the Houston Texans under, yep, former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien.

The coaching business is a small world, isn't it?

Ohio State hasn't confirmed the move, but the addition of Johnson would add to the next phase of the PSU-OSU rivalry. Like Meyer, Franklin comes to the Big Ten from the SEC and brings a similar type of aggressive recruiting approach. When Franklin talked Saturday about dominating the state of Pennsylvania and the region in recruiting, folks in Columbus took notice.

Now Ohio State is poised to replace an exceptional recruiter in Vrabel with another exceptional recruiter in Johnson, who brought top talent to Penn State throughout his 18 years as an assistant there. Johnson coached high school ball in Maryland and has strong connections to the area, which becomes even more important to the Big Ten with the University of Maryland officially joining the league on July 1.

The recruiting competition between Johnson and Franklin, once Maryland's coach-in-waiting, for top recruits in and near the Beltway will be fierce. Recruits from other areas like Thomas Holley, an ESPN 300 defensive lineman who committed to Penn State in October, could now be in play for Ohio State.

Johnson could have remained in Happy Valley and has been nothing but positive toward Franklin despite being passed over for the job for the second time in two years. As he told ESPN.com's Josh Moyer on Monday night, "Getting promoted isn't the issue to me. At the end of the day, it's giving Coach Franklin the chance to move forward."

It's also time for Johnson to tackle a new challenge. Ohio State could be shaking up the defensive play-calling duties after the unit's struggles in 2013, and Johnson would be a good candidate to assist Luke Fickell or take over. He turned down a chance to become Illinois' defensive coordinator after the 2008 season, and also said no to an opportunity at Maryland after the 2011 campaign. Joining Ohio State would make less sense if it's strictly a lateral move as a line coach, but if Johnson can move up both in pay and in responsibilities, he's making the right decision. Franklin is expected to bring defensive coordinator Bob Shoop from Vanderbilt to Penn State.

Penn State certainly will miss Johnson, who had plenty of support from current and former players to become the next Lions coach. Ohio State, meanwhile, needed another strong recruiter after losing both Vrabel and Everett Withers from its defensive staff. It certainly would get one in Johnson.

The Ohio State-Penn State rivalry has been ratcheted up a notch, both on the field and especially on the recruiting trail.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
4:30
PM ET
Wishing you a great weekend. Penn State hiring of new coach James Franklin should be finalized Saturday, so be sure and check the blog for reaction.

Don't forget: Twitter!

To the inbox ...

Josh from NYC writes: I know, I know, offensive MVP of the Rose Bowl and Big Ten Championship game. However had those very catchable INTs gone through, Cook could just as easily come out the villain rather than the hero. That said, when, if at all, do you think we start seeing some Damion Terry action over there in East Lansing?

Adam Rittenberg: Josh, Connor Cook lived on the edge for most of the season with his throws, and he certainly had fortune on his side. But what I loved is that he'd respond from a near-interception with a great throw on the run in traffic or a nice deep ball. If you get the breaks, you have to capitalize, and that's what Cook did. He deserves to be the starting quarterback entering the 2014 season. That said, Terry should be part of the offense, and I could see Michigan State employing a package of plays to get Terry more involved. Mark Dantonio understands the need to have more mobility and play-making skills from the quarterback spot. Terry certainly can help in that area.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioOhio State's defense had its struggles against Michigan but have found what needs correcting before facing Michigan State.
Shane from Michigan writes: Hi Adam, I have a question maybe you can help me with. First of all, I am very optimistic about Michigan's latest hire of Doug Nussmeier. He sounds like a very proven coach. My concern is still the offensive line. The line has never really been great for the three years of the Brady Hoke era. So my question to you is this: how much of the offensive line woes fall on the O-line position coach and how much is that actually on the offensive coordinator?

Adam Rittenberg: It falls mainly on offensive line coach Darrell Funk, especially because he directly recruited the linemen. The coordinator must create schemes catered to players' strengths and make the right play calls and the right times, but when you can't convert third-and-1 on a consistent basis, there's not much a coordinator can do. I'm interested to see how Michigan's blocking schemes change under Nussmeier, who clearly knows the run game is a priority after the past two seasons. But the development of individual players falls more on Funk.

Brian from Raleigh, N.C., writes: As the dust clears from the 2013 season, Northwestern loses "QB 1A" Kain Colter. Predictions, please: Does Trevor Siemian take over as a full-time QB in a 2009 Kafka-style offense? Is there open competition in the spring between Siemian, Zack Oliver, and Matt Alviti? Or does NU try to replicate 2012's success/take advantage of differing skill sets with another multiple-QB system?

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, I'm glad you brought up the 2009 offense, and I'd even throw in (pun intended) the pass-heavy 2008 offense led by C.J. Bacher. If Siemian is the starter, and it seems likely he will be, Northwestern should shape the offense more around his skill set, which is pocket passing. Assuming a two-quarterback system will work every year is risky, and assuming one quarterback will get hurt every year because of how much Northwestern runs its quarterbacks isn't a long-term formula for success in my view. There should be a competition this spring and Siemian shouldn't be handed the job. But if he stays healthy and develops with the receiving corps, which should be pretty good, I think Northwestern ditches the 2-QB deal and goes back to the 2008/2009 offenses, except this time with better running backs.

Casey from Dublin, Ohio, writes: I think the West division from top to bottom will be better than the East in 2014. After Mich St and tOSU they don't have anybody to compete. Michigan still has to prove it can get back. Penn St loses the top playmaker and will break in a new head coach. The West has Neb, Wisky, Iowa, Minny and possibly NW competing for the title in the west if they can get strong QB play and Mark can return to the Mark of 2 seasons ago.

Adam Rittenberg: Casey, the West undoubtedly has more parity entering 2014 and could be a more exciting divisional race. Will it be top-to-bottom better than the East? A lot depends on Michigan, which must rebound from a very disappointing season, and Penn State, which once again welcomes a new coaching staff. If those two programs both improve, the East should be stronger overall. Every West team has potential flaws, as Wisconsin loses a huge senior class, Minnesota has quarterback problems, Iowa needs to show more on offense, Nebraska must overcome long-term erratic play, and Northwestern comes off a brutal 5-7 year. I feel pretty comfortable writing that MSU and OSU will be pretty good in 2014. There are more unknowns in the West, but it should be a lot of fun to watch.

Greg from Philadelphia writes: Really Adam? Christian Hackenberg isn't a star to watch in 2014?! You're ridiculous.

Adam Rittenberg: I've been called worse, Greg. It's a national list and you can't include everyone. Penn State's uncertain coaching situation at the time the story ran played a role in not including Hackenberg, who has given every indication he'll return but still faces a decision on his future with the new staff. He certainly looks like an eventual superstar, but he'll have to adjust to a new set of offensive coaches under James Franklin.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Michael ConroyUrban Meyer has some big shoes to fill on his defensive staff.
Steve from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hey Adam, how do you see Coach Meyer handling his defensive staff after he reviews the year, and who are some likely candidates to replace Coach Withers?

Adam Rittenberg: Meyer will be a busy man next week at the American Football Coaches Association in Indy as he must not only replace Withers but also defensive line coach Mike Vrabel, who is joining Bill O'Brien with the NFL's Houston Texans. Both Withers and Vrabel were exceptional recruiters, so Meyer has to find candidates who not only can develop young players in both areas but get it done on the trail. I think it's important to get an assistant with ties to the South like Withers had. Could Ohio State bring back former coordinator Jim Heacock as defensive line coach? Extremely underrated assistant, in my view.

Nathan from San Antonio writes: Hey Adam, did you happen to see that next years MSU @ Oregon game was moved from week 3 to week 2? I have only read it in one location and wondered if it was true and if so, how come?

Adam Rittenberg: It has been moved, Nathan, to accommodate national television and a certain time slot, which won't be at night. The TV plans aren't final, but the game needed to be played Sept. 6 rather than Sept. 13. So Michigan State won't have an extra week to prepare for the Ducks after the opener against Jacksonville State, but it also won't have to deal with Autzen Stadium at night, which is never fun for the visiting team.

Donnie from Atlanta writes: Hey Adam/Brian, when will the Maryland & Rutgers additions be league official and when will you guys bring them in as part of the blog? Excited to learn more about the newcomers and the new stadiums/fan bases my Buckeyes will be going up against.

Adam Rittenberg: Donnie, we typically make the transition around national signing day, so check the blog in February as we'll officially welcome Maryland and Rutgers.

OSU offseason to-do list: Defense

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
2:00
PM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Another 12-win season is in the books, though the second one under Urban Meyer did come with a pair of losses at the end that took a bit of the shine for Ohio State.

As the Buckeyes turn the page to Year 3 under Meyer, they'll certainly be looking to top that victory total, clinch a spot in the first edition of the playoffs and again compete for a national title. To do so, all three phases will have issues to address, and the checklist today tackles the defense.

Chart a course: Meyer promised an all-inclusive look at what plagued his defense at the end of the season, and first tweaks were already made when he switched out some personnel in the secondary to try to find an answer for both the Discover Orange Bowl and the future. But it will be the next two areas that figure to be more critical moving forward, and they'll likely go hand in hand as Ohio State tries to establish a schematic identity and looks to hire somebody to replace former co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers. The Buckeyes didn't have much depth to speak of and injuries perhaps limited what they could do at times, but often they looked torn between playing conservatively against the pass and dialing up pressure with blitzes and bump-and-run coverage.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesBradley Roby is one of three starters Ohio State will need to replace in its secondary in 2014.
Meyer has made his preference quite well known, and how he handles the vacancy on his staff and how much responsibility that new hire is given could go a long way in ensuring that he gets what he wants.

Reload in the secondary: There might not be a program in the country which can match the roll Ohio State has been on while stockpiling talent in the defensive backfield. But it can't afford to wait any longer for those young guys to contribute as it tries to replace three starters in the secondary, including star cornerback Bradley Roby. There is one holdover in Doran Grant, and Tyvis Powell might qualify as another even though he's headed to a higher-profile gig at safety after spending nearly all of the season at nickelback. Vonn Bell showed what he can bring to the table in the Orange Bowl, and he'll be counted on heavily to live up to his immense potential as a likely starter along with Powell. That would leave what figures to be a heated competition for the other cornerback job, and while Armani Reeves has experience, former elite recruits like Eli Apple and Gareon Conley are going to push him hard.

Replace Shazier: A year ago Ryan Shazier was the only returner in the front seven. Now, his spot is the only one in the starting lineup that needs to be filled. Of those two scenarios, the Buckeyes would almost certainly prefer the latter, though Shazier's production is going to be incredibly difficult to match, as he moves on to the NFL with a year of eligibility left on the table. The lack of depth and experience was more glaring at linebacker than anywhere else for the Buckeyes last season, and in that regard, even losing one starter can present a significant challenge. But Trey Johnson and Mike Mitchell were both meaningful additions in the 2013 class and should be ready for larger roles, Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry can provide stability after solid seasons in the starting lineup and top-shelf commit Raekwon McMillan may be the rare breed of linebacker who can make an impact early. The Buckeyes may still not have an many options on hand at the position as they're used to, but the cupboard is beginning to be restocked.

Previous to-do list: Offense
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State didn't accomplish everything on its checklist in 2013, but it came pretty close in what has to be considered a successful year. If the Buckeyes are going to top it in 2014, it can start with these resolutions moving into Urban Meyer's third season with the program.

Fix the defense: The lack of depth was evident even before injuries started taking a toll on the defensive side of the ball, but that really doesn't excuse the breakdowns that popped up frequently at the end of the season. Giving up nearly 260 passing yards per game will never be acceptable at a program that's proud of its defensive tradition, and that weakness in the secondary is a big part of the reason Ohio State is opening 2014 in the Discover Orange Bowl and not playing for the national championship. In recruiting, the Buckeyes have been accumulating the pieces they need to get back to having a complete two-deep capable of playing at a high level and not just a talented group of starters without much support. Making the right hire to replace co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers could be critical in helping that entire unit reach its potential.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsRegardless of whether Braxton Miller returns for the Buckeyes, Ohio State needs better offensive balance in 2014.
Find balance: For a while, the Buckeyes looked like they had already become the kind of balanced offense Meyer has been trying to build. Braxton Miller's accuracy clearly improved, the receiving corps was hauling in passes deep down the field and tight end Jeff Heuerman was giving Ohio State a matchup nightmare to throw at defenses to keep them from loading up the box to stop the powerful rushing attack. But that aerial attack vanished almost completely down the stretch, with poor weather, good defenses and the success of the ground game all eventually producing too much reliance on Miller and Hyde to make plays with their legs. In the end, the Buckeyes wound up rushing 243 more times than they threw the ball, which isn't close the 50-50 split Meyer has targeted as ideal for his spread offense.

Identify leaders: A core group of veterans that included four senior starters on the offensive line made it easy for the Buckeyes to figure out who to follow last season. But with those stalwarts moving on, along with captains such as C.J. Barnett, Philly Brown, Kenny Guiton (and potentially Miller and linebacker Ryan Shazier, if they leave early for the NFL draft), there will be a significant void to fill. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett could be at the front of the pack to become the voice and face of the program, but he's going to need some help -- and the sooner the Buckeyes find out where it's coming from, the better off they'll be as they head into offseason workouts.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A stomach bug has made its way through part of the Ohio State football team. Head coach Urban Meyer said Monday about four or five players -- none of them starters -- have been quarantined, and the hope is that this is just a 24-hour type of virus.

If only the Buckeyes' defense could heal that quickly.

Ohio State's defense sure looked sickly in its last two games, against Michigan and Michigan State. If things don't turn around before Friday's Discover Orange Bowl, Clemson's high-powered offense could leave Buckeye Nation feeling ill again.

[+] EnlargeTyvis Powell
Jason Mowry/Icon SMIThe play of the safeties has been a recent problem for the Buckeyes, so Tyvis Powell will move over from cornerback to safety to help shore up that area.
The defense will try to get well despite missing some important pieces. Cornerback Bradley Roby, who will be badly needed to help slow down Tigers star receiver Sammy Watkins, is dealing with a bone bruise in his knee that he suffered in the Big Ten title game. Meyer said Roby "practiced a little" on Monday at Nova Southeastern University, but Roby's status remains uncertain. Starting defensive end Noah Spence, the team's top pass rusher, still hasn't joined the team as he deals with a personal issue, and the Buckeyes are preparing Jamal Marcus and Steve Miller in his absence. Starting linebacker Curtis Grant is still dealing with back and ankle injuries that continue limiting him.

Not good news for a defense that's already had its share of problems.

"We've not been up to the standard," Meyer said. "It hasn't been the standard for a while."

Meyer said he's evaluating "the scheme, the development and the personnel" to try and figure out why the defense hasn't performed at a typical Silver Bullets level. But he said one thing he isn't considering changing is Luke Fickell, the co-defensive coordinator who calls plays on that side of the ball.

"I have a tremendous amount of confidence in Coach Fickell," Meyer said. "We're going to get this thing fixed."

Fickell met with the media at a press conference on Monday and pledged to keep plugging away.

"I'm not going to sit here and make excuses and say, 'Well, this hurt us,'" Fickell said. "The reality is we know we've got to play better. We know we've got to get better at the things that we do."

Meyer said he has given a lot of thought and spent much time already contemplating who will replace safeties coach/co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers, who is taking the head coaching job at James Madison. While Meyer didn't rule out changing some roles with the new hire, he said the next assistant will likely hold the same title.

The biggest immediate changes on the defense involve some new faces. Vonn Bell, a highly-touted 2013 signee, will get his first start at nickel back, with Tyvis Powell moving to safety. The play of the safeties was a big problem against Michigan State, and the Buckeyes have had trouble replacing Christian Bryant, who was hurt in the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin.

Should Bell have played more earlier?

"I've always been a big Vonn Bell guy," Meyer said. "It takes time to move him into the lineup. We had good chemistry, won a lot of games. But he's certainly a talented guy who's going to play a bunch for us."

Powell has only practiced "some" at safety this season, Fickell said. It's a risk playing two guys in two new positions against Clemson's dangerous receivers, but Ohio State is banking on ability.

"Vonn brings a little something different," defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. "He's a little jack rabbit. He's a little different. Tyvis has a lot of range at safety. I'm excited to watch them play Friday."

Fickell said Miller hasn't really practiced at Spence's end spot all season, and his lack of experience there could "make us maybe have to limit some of the things we do there." Marcus has spent time in that position and brings some good things to the table.

"He's going to bring some aggressiveness and some twitch and some fire to the edge," Fickell said. "But it's that test of time in front of 75,000 people on Friday night. If you have a new guy out there, how do they really, truly react and respond in front of that with those lights on?"

There are a lot of questions hanging over the Buckeyes defense heading into Friday's game. They sure hope to make a miraculous recovery.

Big Ten Christmas Eve mailbag

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
4:00
PM ET
Since Christmas is tomorrow, the normal Big Ten Wednesday mailbag comes at you a day early. Consider this your letters to Santa blog:

Matt from Tucson, Ariz., writes: I'll send my question to you since you chose Nebraska as your most improved bowl team. I'm curious why (as a whole) Nebraska is perceived as a bad team that didn't meet expectations? I was watching ESPN's bowl preview show and was disappointed that Mike Belotti called Nebraska "a bad team" while Georgia was declared a team that persevered through injuries. Didn't Nebraska persevere through enough O-Line, WR, and QB injuries to make it to an 8-4 record? The O-line was so beat up that Vincent Valentine was needed on the FG team by the end of the season. Why is there no love for the Huskers?

Brian Bennett: "Bad" is a very subjective word, Matt, and not one I'd use to describe this Nebraska team. It's true that the Cornhuskers did get a whole lot of crummy luck when it came to injuries, including losing senior quarterback Taylor Martinez and much of the offensive line. Nebraska did a great job of persevering and pulling out victories in tough games against Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan, the latter two of which came on the road. If there's a difference between Nebraska and Georgia, it's that the Bulldogs have marquee victories over South Carolina and LSU and came within a miracle play of beating Auburn on the road. The Huskers didn't accomplish anything close to that and suffered three blowout losses at home -- to UCLA, Michigan State and Iowa.

Tim from Raleigh, N.C., writes: Will the Capital One Bowl be the last game Joel Stave starts for Wisconsin? I want Bart Houston (#BartHouston2014 which I try to get trending on Twitter) to start next year. I've been excited about this kid since he committed. I thought Gary Andersen might not be as thrilled since he is a pocket passer, but I looked at Houston's stats and he had 338 rushing yards and 19 rushing TDs in his senior HS season. He's supposed to have the better arm and can probably run better than Stave. I respect Stave a lot being an in-state walk on, but I don't think he's the answer for the next 2 years. I'm also scared Houston could then transfer. I don't want us to be in a Nebraska type situation where get stuck with a QB that you started as a freshman. Also, Houston has to start, HE'S NAMED AFTER BART STARR!!

Brian Bennett: Well, he's got a good name and some nice high school stats. There's an airtight case that he should start. Ahem.

There's nothing quite like the love for backup quarterbacks among fans. A player is almost never as popular as he is before he plays a significant down. Hey, Bart Houston might wind up as a great player. We have no idea. I'll tell you who does, though: Andersen, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and the rest of the Badgers staff. They've seen Houston practice every day since they've come to Madison. If they thought Houston was better than Stave, he would have played more by now.

Maybe Houston progresses in the offseason and overtakes Stave, who simply missed too many throws in 2013. Or maybe Tanner McEvoy makes a move at quarterback, though his future may well lie on defense after he played well at safety. It's no secret that Andersen likes mobile quarterbacks. Right now, though, Stave still has a huge experience edge. It will be up to someone else to outplay him in practice.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Al GoldisCould Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi get a head coaching job soon?
Matt from SoCal writes: Do you see Pat Narduzzi as a real option to be the head coach at Texas?

Brian Bennett: I don't, Matt. It's not that I think Narduzzi couldn't do a good job at Texas. It's just that I don't believe the Longhorns will hire a coordinator. They've got more money than Scrooge McDuck and are going to shoot for the moon with this job. Narduzzi might, however, benefit from a possible coaching carousel resulting from the Texas hire.

Kevin from Rock Island, Ill., writes: Illinois has really been going after the Juco players. What are your thoughts on the strategy and some of the signees so far? It has worked for Groce and the basketball program, but when there are so many holes, it seems like a short term fix to a bigger problem.

Brian Bennett: No doubt there are some issues with signing a lot of junior college guys. Not all pan out, and you risk getting in the cycle of needing more and more to fill gaps. But Tim Beckman really needs more depth and experience on the roster, and I think he sees this mostly as a short-term fix. The guys Illinois signed last year weren't exactly superstars, but players like Zane Petty and Martize Barr contributed, and Eric Finney might have done more than that had he stayed healthy. I can't pretend to know how good these incoming 2014 jucos will be, but I do like that the Stone-Davis brothers both fill needs at receiver and defensive backs and have three years left to play.

Connor M. from Lima, Ohio, writes: Love the work you guys do for the Big Ten! Looking ahead to next year, let's say Braxton and Shazier both play well in the Orange Bowl, raise their stock and turn pro. How much will the offense and defense be affected and who do you see replacing those two in their respective positions, most specifically, the QB spot?

Brian Bennett: Thanks, Connor. I think Ryan Shazier is the more likely of the two to go pro, and Ohio State could more easily absorb that loss, even though it would be a huge one. The defensive line should continue to improve, and there's a ton of young talent at linebacker and in the secondary on the way. Losing Braxton Miller, however, would change the whole outlook for the 2014 Buckeyes, especially since most of the offensive line and Carlos Hyde also are seniors. The only experience at all on the roster at quarterback is Cardale Jones, and he's a freshman who has thrown four passes. Freshman J.T. Barrett and incoming recruit Stephen Collier would battle Jones for the starting job, but Ohio State would basically be starting from scratch. In a much more difficult division.

BUCKIHATER from Future Home of the BigTen, NYC, writes: If you look back starting from the modern era of college football (1960's- present), the school who loves to put the word 'THE' in front of its name only has two claimed national titles -- you can even argue they should only have one if it wasn't for a really bad call, while the other happened before Woodstock. If you compare the 'THE' to other traditional football powerhouses like 'Bama, Miami, even Nebraska who all have 5 or more since the 60's, its not even close. Why does 'THE' get so much love on being the savior for the Big Ten? I was shocked to see the lack of championships over the last 50 years and Michigan State just did what every team in the Big Ten wanted to do for 2 years: Beat the bullies from Columbus.

Brian Bennett: So I take it you're not an Ohio State fan, then? Listen, if you want to start talking about national championships won by the Big Ten since the 1960s, this is not going to turn out well for anyone. Since 1970, we've got Michigan's split national title in 1997, Ohio State's in 2002 and ... hey, look, at that squirrel over there! The Buckeyes have been the only Big Ten team to even play for a national championship in the BCS era as a league member, and they've done it three times. So if you want to hate on Ohio State, that's fine. But that makes the rest of the conference look even worse by comparison.

Doug from KC, MO, writes: I have a Hawkeye question stemming from some recent conversations I've had with Nebraska fans. They always talk about whether to get another coach or not because they want to be contending for National Titles like the old (90's) days. I tell them for most teams in the country, and especially the BIG, this is pretty unrealistic. CFB is at a point where a lot of the odds/rules/recruiting are stacked against northern teams and outside of programs with lots of tradition (Mich, OSU and even ND) it is going to be very tough for you to have a regular NCG contender. I hope for a BCS game or Rose Bowl for Iowa every 4-5 years but it is just too much of a stretch for me to think Iowa (and other mid-tier BIG teams) will make a NCG appearance. Do you think some BIG teams have expectations that are too high or am I on the Debbie Downer side of the argument?

Brian Bennett: Doug, can you talk to BUCKIHATER for me? Anyway, I'm not sure enough Big Ten programs are ambitious enough. The Rose Bowl is great, but too many league teams talk like the Big Ten title is the ultimate goal, and I believe that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. How many times did you hear Urban Meyer talk about how much the Buckeyes just wanted to get to the Rose Bowl?

Anyway, as I just wrote a moment ago, the Big Ten hasn't exactly been reeling in the national titles. Here's the good news for the league, and for a team like Iowa: the forthcoming Playoff opens things up. Have a great year, win the Big Ten, and there's a chance you'll be in the four-team playoff. From there, who knows? Getting to that playoff, not the Rose Bowl, has to be the goal for every serious league team from 2014 on.

Chris from Northern Michigan writes: Happy holidays, Brian, and merry bowl season. I would like to get your thoughts on the MSU QB situation. Obviously it looks like Connor Cook has the job wrapped up for the next two years, barring injury or a huge year next year leading to NFL early entry. Would you expect Damion Terry or Tyler O'Connor to transfer? MSU just lost a QB recruit, and while it would be understandable that either current QB would want to play, a Cook injury could be catastrophic if either transfers.

Brian Bennett: Catastrophic? Well, you'd still have Cook and at least one backup. Not a whole lot of teams had to play three quarterbacks major minutes this season, outside of Nebraska. Cook will be hard to unseat after going 9-0 in the Big Ten and winning a title. I do think there will be some sort of role for Terry, because he's just too talented not to get on the field. Wouldn't surprise me one bit if O'Connor moved on.

And to your first point, Chris, Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.

Improving defense at top of Meyer's list

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
2:30
PM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Presented with a one-question, multiple-choice quiz, Urban Meyer barely even needed to hear all the options to come up with his answer.

What does the Ohio State coach need to address with his beleaguered defense?

A: Personnel changes are in order, perhaps starting by finding time for arguably the most sought-after recruit in the most recent signing class, athletic safety Vonn Bell.

B: The scheme needs some adjustments after getting torched through the air down the stretch, undoing some of the success stopping the run and eliminating the margin for error for its own high-scoring offense.

C: Whether by choice or necessity, a staff shakeup might bring a new voice and maybe fresh ideas into the meeting room as the program heads into its third year under Meyer.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Buckeyes couldn't get a firm grip on Connor Cook in the Big Ten title game, surrendering 304 passing yards.
“All of the above,” Meyer said after wrapping up a practice last week ahead of the Discover Orange Bowl. “ ... There are certainly things we need to get fixed and fixed in a hurry with Clemson coming down the road here.”

Meyer didn’t provide any essay answers for what those corrections might be for the No. 7 Buckeyes, either in the short term as they gear up for a stiff test against the No. 12 Tigers or what all might go into overhauling the defense once the offseason inevitably arrives.

But it’s plainly evident that the majority of Meyer’s attention will be devoted to shoring up a unit that ranked No. 103 in the nation in pass defense, contributing heavily to an overall effort that didn’t meet Ohio State’s high standards as it allowed 34 points or more three times in the final four games -- including the loss that crushed its national-championship dreams against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

Part of the problem has been lack of depth, and Meyer has quickly steered most conversations since the season ended to how hard the Buckeyes have hit the road recruiting. The loss of Christian Bryant to a broken ankle in September was a hurdle the secondary could never quite get over, and he, too, could be a candidate to patch the leak if his appeal for a medical redshirt is approved in the offseason.

Either way, Bell is a likely option to lend a hand, both against the Tigers and down the road as Meyer evaluates the roster and potentially looks to make a move or two on the field. And off it, he already knows now that he’ll be making his first hire since his initial staff was settled before spring camp in 2012 as Everett Withers departs to take over at James Madison after two years coaching safeties and serving as a co-defensive coordinator.

And while the work on the recruiting trail, the development of a handful of young, talented defenders and the hiring of another coach may all take time, the Buckeyes don’t have all that much to work with before taking on Clemson and trying to cap the season with a trophy in a BCS game. After getting torched for 755 passing yards in the last two games, they crammed as much as they could into the bowl practices over the last two weeks before taking off for the holidays and preparing to fly to Miami.

“I think we just have to break on the ball better, be more sound in our gaps and our responsibilities,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We have to communicate better, and it’s just the little things that we’ve got to fix.

“I’m kind of surprised, because those little things, we definitely should have controlled at the beginning of the season. We just have to do a better job with this time we have before this game to get it fixed.”

Once that test is out of the way, the Buckeyes will have a bit more time to study up and make sure they’re prepared defensively next season.

Meyer has already made clear that every possible answer to the problems will be addressed.

Withers to JMU; change coming for OSU

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
7:35
PM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The first change to Urban Meyer's coaching staff at Ohio State is coming.

The two-year commitments all have been fulfilled, and Everett Withers became the first assistant to leave for a head-coaching job elsewhere on Friday when he accepted the position at James Madison after serving as the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach for the No. 7 Buckeyes.

The move perhaps comes as no surprise, since Withers has made it well known even before coaching a down and helping lead a 24-game winning streak at Ohio State that he'd like to take over another program after leading North Carolina on an interim basis in 2011. But now that it's official, there's a chance it might benefit both parties as Meyer evaluates a defense that struggled mightily against the pass last season and looks to make his first new hire since taking over the Buckeyes.

Meyer indicated Wednesday, as Ohio State practiced for the Discover Orange Bowl against No. 12 Clemson, that changes could be coming, both because the defense needs to make improvements and because his staff was stocked with coveted commodities after stringing together two consecutive regular seasons without a loss.

"Whenever you have a season, the last two seasons like we had, they're hot guys," Meyer said. "I've gotten a lot of phone calls about our guys, head-coaching opportunities. What happens -- nothing has happened yet."

That changed when James Madison dialed Withers gave him an offer he's wanted since getting passed over by North Carolina.

Meyer asked all of his initial hires with the Buckeyes to give him two years with the program, and Withers held up his end of the deal while serving as one of the top recruiters on the staff. He was highly praised by Meyer for his work in landing touted safety Vonn Bell a year ago, and Withers long has been respected by his peers as one of the top defensive minds in the country.

And despite some rough patches this season as the Buckeyes fell to No. 102 in the nation in pass defense and never could quite overcome a significant injury to senior safety Christian Bryant, he still emerged as a viable candidate for a Football Championship Subdivision program that has won a national title as recently as 2004.

"[Ohio State] was the best opportunity for me going into this year," Withers told ESPN.com last season. "That's why I feel like I'm here. But I do want some day to have that opportunity to be able to lead a program and be the guy.

"That's something that I'm truly, truly working to do -- as I try to help Ohio State win a national championship."

The Buckeyes came up one game short this year, and the late-season defensive woes that popped up certainly contributed in the loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

That side of the ball obviously wasn't the only reason for the loss, but the defense certainly has been in Meyer's crosshairs since the season ended. Now it's official that there will be a change in personnel to get it fixed.

"Yeah, obviously we didn't play very well the last two games," Meyer said. "Tweaks might be the appropriate word.

"We're still working through that and working at the changes."

For the first time since he arrived, the next step for Meyer is finding a new assistant to fill out the staff.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
4:00
PM ET
Wishing you a great weekend. Check out the full ESPN bowl schedule (with broadcast teams).

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter if you aren't already.

To the inbox ...

Mike from Allentown, Pa., writes: Hey Adam, with all the talk about Penn State's bowl ban being looked into this offseason, I have a hypothetical question for you. If the NCAA were to drop Penn State's bowl ban, would the Big Ten comply and make them eligible for the Big Ten championship? Or, is it possible the Big Ten could extend that ban separate from the NCAA?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, the Big Ten's penalties always were tied to the NCAA's. Big Ten rules state that if the NCAA declares a team ineligible for postseason play, that team can't play in the Big Ten championship game. So if the NCAA lifts the bowl ban, the Big Ten would declare Penn State eligible for a league title (the Lions already can win their division). Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has been pleased with Penn State's response to former Sen. George Mitchell, the independent athletics integrity monitor assigned to the school. So I'd be shocked if the Big Ten added or maintained any sanctions against Penn State once the NCAA ones are lifted.


Josh from Indy writes: Have you ever thought about the comparison between Darqueze and his cousin Alfonzo? Both had great careers for their respective teams. Just wanted your take on this.

Adam Rittenberg: Josh, I definitely thought about it after Darqueze Dennard won the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award, which Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard claimed in 2011. I can't imagine two family members have won the same award while playing for different teams in the same league. Pretty cool. Darqueze's numbers this season are more impressive than Alfonzo's in 2011, although Alfonzo was a true shut-down guy who basically eliminated one side of the field. Darqueze's pro prospects are better, as many peg him as a first-round draft pick. We'll never know where Alfonzo would have been drafted if he hadn't had the off-field trouble. Both are great players, though.


Derek from Preston, Iowa, writes: Hey Adam, I was just curious as to what you thoughts were on Derrell Johnson-Koulianos' Twitter tirade against Kirk Ferentz. Ferentz is beloved for the most part in Hawkeye Country, and this whole thing just seems weird. Why now?

Adam Rittenberg: The timing is interesting, Derek, as much of this happened three years ago. I understand Derrell's perspective that Ferentz blackballed him with the NFL and stifled his playing career. Some of his teammates back up the accusations against Ferentz and strength coach Chris Doyle. It's an unfortunate situation, but I would be very surprised if Ferentz or Iowa has anything to say about the accusations, especially so long after the fact. Iowa has moved forward and Ferentz's word still carries weight in NFL circles.

DJK has the right to air his grievances, and he has never held back on his views. Honestly, I can't think of a Big Ten player I've covered who fit in less with a particular program. But I doubt there will be major consequences for Ferentz or Iowa.


Fatback from Newark, Ohio, writes: Just wanting to know what your thoughts about Ohio State's defensive coordinator position. I know Fickell is an OSU guy, but we definitely need a change of pace. What do you think about Fickell moving down to just a position coach ( if he doesn't get another job this offseason), and hiring another person from the outside or moving Mike Vrabel up? I think with Vrabel we would play much more aggressive and sit back in all the zone coverage that teams seem to kill us on. Again, your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: It would be tough for Ohio State to demote Fickell, who was the Big Ten's third highest-paid assistant this year ($610,000). You're not going to pay that salary to a position coach (at least you shouldn't). Fickell still brings a lot of value to Ohio State as a recruiter, and while his defense has its issues this year, youth in the front seven and Christian Bryant's injury didn't help matters. On the other hand, Urban Meyer has extremely high standards, and if he feels Fickell isn't helping the team to a national championship, maybe you make the change.

I've heard that Vrabel has definite head-coaching potential, and he did a nice job with a young defensive line this year. With Everett Withers reportedly departing to James Madison, don't be surprised to see a co-coordinator situation with Vrabel and Fickell. Perhaps Vrabel has more say on play calls. I just can't see Ohio State forcing out Fickell right now.


Joe from Kentucky writes: How can you guys leave off Blake Countess and Stanley Jean-Baptiste from the All-B1G selection for Bradley Roby? Roby was suspended for his off-the-field antics (looks really all-conference) and he got exposed by any of the good WRs he faced. Jared Abbrederis and Jeremy Gallon made him look silly to the tune of almost 400 yards combined. That does not sound like an all-conference performer to me. On the other hand, Countess led the conference in INTs and Jean-Baptiste was right there (if not tied). I think you guys were a little biased in trying to make MSU and OSU the top two represented teams (which their records show). Also, Ryan Shazier is the only person on that Ohio State defense to be named All-B1G.

Adam Rittenberg: Roby's one-game suspension really isn't relevant, as we included Carlos Hyde on the team despite his three-game suspension because he was the Big Ten's best running back in league play (few would argue). I agree that Roby struggled against Abbrederis in the Wisconsin game, but many of Gallon's yards didn't come against Roby in the Michigan game. Roby made a touchdown-saving tackle on Gallon, running completely across the field, one of several displays of athleticism he had this season. He had a very good Big Ten season and is one of the better special-teams players I can remember in this league. SJB had a nice season but no picks in Big Ten play. You could make a case for Countess, but I still feel Roby performed better in Big Ten play than any corner other than MSU's Dennard. Shazier is the only other Buckeye defender on our All-Big Ten team, although lineman Michael Bennett deservedly made the second-team.


Will from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Should I be concerned that Michigan will be breaking in two new starters at both offensive tackle positions in 2014? Lewan and Schofield took 99.9 percent of the snaps this year, likely making their replacements having VERY little, to no game experience. After the abysmal display on the interior of the line this year, I do believe there are positives in game time reps of the interior line translating to better protection up the middle next season. Will inexperience on the edge hurt the line more next year than the inside this year, or can you mask the youth more on the outside than in?

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Will. I agree that Michigan's interior line will be improved next year because of all the experience gained, even through some tough times. It will be interesting to see what Michigan does with Erik Magnuson, who can play either guard or tackle but might be best at tackle depending on his development. The staff was excited about Ben Braden's development in the offseason, and he could step in for Lewan at left tackle. I'm really interested to see how the line performs in Arizona following bowl practices, but you're right that the group will continue to be under the microscope with both veteran tackles departing.


Ken from Carmel, Ind., writes: When Clifton Garrett recently committed to LSU, he mentioned the great game-day atmosphere. Having attended a game there, I agree. Sometimes I think the B10 doesn't get that -- and is slow to pick up other little things like that (night games) that can make the difference in winning or losing recruiting battles, and eventually games. As an Iowa grad, the large number of 11 a.m. games certainly don't help the game-day atmosphere. I get the feeling that the people at the top -- president, and A.D. -- don't understand this. You'll have a couple more arrests with later games, but most people just cheer louder and have more fun - a.k.a., better game-day atmosphere. Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Couldn't agree more, Ken, and I've been writing this for years. The Big Ten needs to prioritize prime-time games and become more open to weekday games, which would get some of the smaller programs some much-needed exposure. The good news: the league is definitely warming up to the idea, adding more prime-time games and becoming open to November night games, most likely in the 2014 season. Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said Thursday that the Big Ten's next television contract will feature more prime-time games. That's a good thing, as the noon ET and 3:30 p.m. ET windows just don't carry the same weight with recruits.

A look at the B1G assistant salaries

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
2:30
PM ET
USA Today has released its annual database of assistant coach salaries throughout college football so let's see how the Big Ten aides stack up. Ten of the 12 Big Ten schools report coaches' salaries (Northwestern and Penn State do not).

Once again, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison leads Big Ten assistants in pay at $851,400, which ranks fourth nationally behind million-dollar coordinators Chad Morris of Clemson, Kirby Smart of Alabama and John Chavis of LSU.

Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges is the only other Big Ten assistant in the top 10 nationally in total pay ($709,300). Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck ($700,000) is next, followed by Ohio State defensive coordinators Luke Fickell ($610,000) and Everett Withers ($585,000), Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($558,908) and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman ($555,000).

On the whole, the Big Ten has fewer assistants making top-20 salaries than the SEC. There's also a decent drop-off in salary after Herman, as no others make more than $500,000 (Wisconsin coordinators Dave Aranda and Andy Ludwig both make $480,000).

Here are the highest-paid assistants for the 10 Big Ten squads reporting salary:

Michigan: Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison ($851,400)
Nebraska: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck ($700,000)
Ohio State: Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell ($610,000)
Michigan State: Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($558,908)
Wisconsin: Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig ($480,000)
Purdue: Offensive coordinator John Shoop ($400,000)
Illinois: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and defensive coordinator Tim Banks ($400,000)
Indiana: Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell ($356,500)
Minnesota: Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($346,800)
Iowa: Defensive coordinator Phil Parker ($325,500)

Claeys clearly is the best value in the league, as he served as Minnesota's acting head coach during Jerry Kill's health-related absence and remained as the main sideline coach even after Kill returned to duty. Iowa's Parker, along with OC Greg Davis ($325,000) also earned their keep and then some as the Hawkeyes flipped their record from 4-8 to 8-4.

Some Michigan fans will scoff at Borges' salary after the Wolverines offense struggled for much of Big Ten play. Fickell, Shoop and Banks also directed units that had forgettable seasons.

One thing to keep in mind when some of these assistants are mentioned for head-coaching jobs is the pay cuts they'd likely take to lead teams in smaller conferences.

In terms of total staff pay, Ohio State leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally at $3,474,504, trailing LSU, Alabama, Clemson, Texas and Auburn. Michigan comes in next at $3,072,000, which ranks 14th nationally.

Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in part because he had lost so many assistants in his final two years in Madison. Bielema's staff at Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in total staff pay ($3,233,000), while Gary Andersen's staff at Wisconsin ranks 28th ($2,495,000)

Here are the Big Ten teams sorted by total staff pay:

Ohio State: $3,474,504
Michigan: $3,072,000
Nebraska: $2,648,500
Wisconsin: $2,495,000
Michigan State: $2,410,483
Iowa: $2,367,500
Minnesota: $2,152,350
Indiana: $2,074,780
Illinois: $2,066,400
Purdue: $2,010,000

We can have an endless about debate whether college football coaches make too much money in general, but these numbers remain problematic for the Big Ten in my view. Only two teams are truly paying top dollar for their staffs, and some groups are undervalued.

Michigan State's staff obviously jumps out after the Spartans just won the Big Ten championship. MSU co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($280,800) and Jim Bollman ($262,000) are among the lowest-paid coordinators in the league, as several position coaches make more than them. Athletic director Mark Hollis said last week that raises are coming for head coach Mark Dantonio and his assistants.

Minnesota's staff also deserves a nice bump after handling such a tough situation this season. I also wonder whether Iowa's coordinators get a raise, especially considering what head coach Kirk Ferentz makes.

Purdue's Marcus Freeman and Jafar Williams are the Big Ten's lowest-paid assistants at $120,000. Only one SEC assistant, Kentucky's Derrick Ansley, makes less than $140,000.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Urban Meyer calls into Finebaum
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer called into The Paul Finebaum Show to talk about the Buckeyes' matchup vs. Bama.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12