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Fickell practice Luke Fickell, a former nose tackle for the Buckeyes, is happy to step back from head coaching duties and focus on the defense.
Luke Fickell, a former nose tackle for the Buckeyes, is happy to step back from head coaching duties and focus on the defense.
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Published: Thursday, 8/23/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

OSU's Fickell back in familiar role as head of defense

BY DAVID BRIGGS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

COLUMBUS -- The coach kept walking as he spotted a crush of reporters in the Ohio State football indoor facility.

Luke Fickell was scheduled to meet with the media for the first time in months after a recent practice, but the cameras could wait. He slipped behind the mass surrounding offensive coordinator Tom Herman and into the locker room.

As the temporary face of a program in turmoil last season, Fickell uncomfortably did the media drill twice a week. This year, someone else could have the spotlight.

"Let Tom have them," he said with a laugh after emerging 15 minutes later. "I'm sure they've seen enough of me. They can go ahead and recite what I'm probably going to say."

A bridge between eras, Fickell appears a man content in his new/old role as an in-the-background leader of the Buckeyes' defense.

Fickell is back as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, the same job he held for six seasons before the scandal that ousted Jim Tressel thrust him into the head chair last season. No longer pulled every which way, the 39-year-old is able to channel his focus toward restoring Ohio State's defense to the nationally elite stature he helped shape over the past decade.

"You've got to find what's exciting to you, what you have a passion for," he said. "That's coaching. This is what I love, being with the defense. I love being with a young group of guys."

The lone holdover from Tressel's final season in 2010, Fickell provides Urban Meyer a stabilizing defensive presence in a time of sweeping change -- exactly what the offensive-minded coach sought when he was hired in November.

Meyer knew from past experience the importance of keeping a top defensive coach from the previous staff. He retained Tim Beckman at Bowling Green in 2001, Kyle Whittingham at Utah in 2003, and Charlie Strong at Florida in 2005. All three helped accelerate the transition and are now head coaches at major college programs.

"There used to be a time -- not in my lifetime -- when you could go build a program," Meyer said. "That really doesn't exist anymore. You've got to go win. That's why from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida to here I've always kept the [same defense].

"To install a brand new offense, a brand new defense, a brand new special teams, that takes time. Momentum is such a key in recruiting and with your fan base."

That's why Ohio State made Fickell one of the highest-paid assistants in the country with an annual salary of $750,000. Meyer hopes a defense that returns eight starters is readymade to carry OSU when necessary.

Before last year, which ended with a Buckeyes team buffeted from every direction allowing 110 points over their season-ending four-game losing streak, Fickell helped fashion some of the nation's top defenses. The Buckeyes ranked 14th or better in total defense every year in his time as co-defensive coordinator under Jim Heacock between 2005 and 2010.

Now, Fickell aims to re-establish that standard. It will be his defense -- Meyer has said Fickell will call the plays -- though he said the unit fans see Sept. 1 against Miami will reflect the philosophies of the new-look staff.

Players said the biggest change is a more attacking style, made possible by a deep defensive line.

"The strength of our defense is going to be up front," said Fickell, a former Buckeyes nose tackle who joined the OSU staff in 2002 as special teams coordinator. "We'd be crazy not to allow them to be aggressive."

This, in turn, is designed to allow the Buckeyes to be more forceful behind them. Co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers, who served as interim coach at North Carolina last season, has introduced a sagging coverage style in the secondary.

"It's the ability to play off sometimes in the back end and still allow those guys to have great vision and play off the football," Fickell said.

Ultimately, though, he said the defense will be the one unit more similar than different. The Buckeyes are keeping the same terminology, the same 4-3 base, and, of course, the same coach.

Fickell is glad to be back ... and away from the cameras.

"It's just a different feel," he said. "It's a different perspective as a coach out there. All the years have been fun, with different challenges at different times. But this is definitely an exciting time."

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.



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