COLUMBUS — It has been the million-dollar question for an Ohio State defense that allowed about as many yards last season.
Who will have the final say on play-calling?
Luke Fickell? His new sidekick, co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash? Heck, maybe coach Urban Meyer will throw down the gauntlet, forsake sleep, and just do it himself.
At the least, gone are the days of Meyer the CEO — an innovative offensive mind with little background on the other side of the ball — delegating the defensive game-planning almost entirely to his assistants.
"I’m going to be more involved on defense than I ever have been," he said this week, "just to make sure that we get up to Ohio State standards."
Really, though, there are no defined answers, other than that defining changes are coming.
While Meyer hinted Fickell will remain in charge, he promised an overhauled defense spurred by a pair of influential new voices: Ash and defensive line coach Larry Johnson, Sr.
Collaboration was the buzzword, with the new power structure giving particular directive to Ash — who is charged with, as Meyer said, a "serious responsibility, and that’s to improve our pass defense." Ash will coach the safeties and oversee the entire secondary to unite a back end that often appeared confused and indecisive.
That’s a distinct break from the past two years, when the since-departed Everett Withers coached the safeties and Kerry Coombs guided the cornerbacks. The two positions will now meet in the same room and answer to the same coach.
"We will have one voice,” said Coombs, who will assist Ash and continue to coach the cornerbacks. “We both may be saying it, but we'll be saying the same thing.”
Meyer praised the Buckeyes’ departed assistants, most significantly former defensive line coach Mike Vrabel, an outsized personality and dynamic recruiter who left for an assistant position with the NFL’s Houston Texans. He said, "It hurts me that he left, but I know it was all positive."
Meyer, though, said it became clear late last season that the Buckeyes’ defense needed a new approach — and perhaps a new face. Their pass defense ranked 110th nationally, while over the last three games they allowed a combined 115 points and more than 1,600 yards.
"There were some holes," Meyer said. "It’s very easy to blame players or blame coaches, but just overall we need to freshen up our defense. That's what's going to get ready to take place over the next few months."
He added: "You're going to see some significant changes in the way we approach our business on [the] back end."
Which is why Meyer brought in Ash, 40, an established, aggressive fixer who most recently served as Bret Bielema’s defensive coordinator at Wisconsin and Arkansas. The Badgers were 15th nationally in total defense in both 2011 and 2012 and fourth and 18th, respectively, in pass defense. Though Arkansas was 73rd in pass defense in Bielema’s 3-9 debut season, the Razorbacks were 116th in 2012.
Ash took a $30,000 pay cut for the chance to work at OSU — the school reported he will earn $520,000 annually — and expressed no concerns of a potential power struggle with Fickell.
"If I didn't think Luke and I could have a good working relationship and have great chemistry in the room, I wouldn't have come here," he said. "Players are going to feed off the coaches. ... You don’t have to be best friends, but you have to be on the same page."
If the staff is aligned, he said, all the chatter about who gets the credit on Saturdays is overblown.
"Most of the people on the defensive staff should be able to make the calls," Ash said. "If you’er preparing the right way and everyone has ownership, calling on game day is not that difficult. It’s a team effort."
He said he’s concerned not so much about who calls the plays as how they are run.
“You play with reckless abandon," Ash said. "You’re physical. You throw your body around. You play without hesitation. There’s no confusion. You know exactly what you’re doing and you can react to your key. There’s only one speed, and that’s full speed."
MEWHORT’S BIG AUDITION: Left tackle Jack Mewhort is one of six former Buckeyes players to snag an invite to this month’s NFL combine in Indianapolis.
The St. John’s Jesuit graduate will be joined by running back Carlos Hyde, linebacker Ryan Shazier, cornerback Bradley Roby, center Corey Linsley, and receiver Corey Brown.
Michigan had three invitees — left tackle Taylor Lewan, right tackle Michael Schofield, and receiver Jeremy Gallon — while running back David Fluellen will represent the University of Toledo. The weeklong event begins Feb. 19 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
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