One of Ryan Day’s first tasks after being named the successor to Urban Meyer as Ohio State head football coach on Jan. 2 was addressing a faltering defense that had just turned in one of the worst seasons in program history on that side of the ball. The defensive coaching staff saw a nearly complete overhaul, with defensive line coach Larry Johnson the only holdover from Meyer’s staff.
Day turned to a familiar foe to address one of his vacancies, hiring Greg Mattison from the University of Michigan to serve as the co-defensive coordinator in Columbus, along with former San Francisco 49ers secondary coach Jeff Hafley. Mattison spent the past eight seasons in Ann Arbor, serving as the defensive coordinator on Brady Hoke’s staff and as the defensive line coach for Jim Harbaugh.
Prior to his time in Michigan, Mattison served as the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens in 2009 and 2010, and was the co-defensive coordinator for Urban Meyer at Florida from 2005-07.
In addition to his role as the co-defensive coordinator, Mattison is also working with the outside linebackers. Head coach Ryan Day called Mattison’s experience “critical” for the defense. “It’s making sure that we’re fundamentally sound, that we fit the runs correctly, that the back end is fitting into the front end, that we’re pursuing the ball … that’s something he’s preached for a really long time, and he’s done a really good job of that since he’s been here.”
Following Wednesday’s practice, Mattison met with the media to discuss the progress he has seen from the defense throughout the offseason and halfway through camp.
Mattison was asked about 6-foot-5 freshman Cade Stover, a four-star recruit out of Lexington, Ohio, who had his black stripe removed from his helmet Tuesday.
“He’s another very, very talented young man,” Mattison said of Stover. “A big, strong young man that can run. He has a lot of ability. The great thing for him is he gets to watch Pete Werner every day.”
Mattison said Werner’s “dedication to doing things correctly” has been very beneficial to Stover’s development.
He went on to say that while guys like Stover or fellow freshman Craig Young may or may not push for playing time this season, other opportunities to contribute are present to all young defensive players.
“The great thing about here (at Ohio State) is that it may not just be on defense,” Mattison said of early playing time. “Special teams are as important as any phase that we have. So, you have that opportunity … both of them are talented enough and athletic enough to do that.”
Much has been made of the implementation of the “bullet” position, a hybrid safety and linebacker role, by the new defensive coaching staff. Mattison described the bullet position as a role to defend against teams whose game plan is to spread the defense out and use an athletic tight end to create mismatches against either a potentially slower linebacker or an undersized defensive back.
Mattison again praised the size, speed, and athleticism of Werner as the Sam linebacker who might see that matchup but added the bullet position should be someone who is in the same mold and is interchangeable with the Sam.
Sophomore Brendon White figures to be utilized at the bullet position after starting the final five games of last season for the Buckeyes, and he drew praise from Mattison for his performance at this position thus far, as did Jahsen Wint.
Given his experience at safety and his versatility, Mattison said White will still also factor into the safety group depending on what package is utilized on the field.
Mattison later said the “base defense” would typically include a Sam linebacker, but “with the type of offense people give you now, you feel very comfortable having that big, fast athlete (at the bullet) also.” He added Werner gives the defense the advantage of having a player in the mold of the hybrid position even when the Sam linebacker is on the field.
Asked what he has seen out of Tuf Borland, who drew his share of criticism for the defense’s deficiencies last season, Mattison praised Borland — and all the linebackers — for their ability to control the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
“I like everything about Tuf Borland’s game … comes out to practice every day, extremely intelligent, takes great pride in getting the front lined up,” Mattison said. “Our ‘backers have all bought into (communicating) … everybody looks at a linebacker, he has to be able to blitz, he has to be able to tackle, he has to be able to run. The number one thing he has to be able to do is get maybe the best defensive line in the Big Ten lined up and ready to go.”
While he said the three returning starters — Borland, Werner, and Malik Harrison — have earned the right to be where they are, Mattison wouldn’t commit to naming those three the starters for the season opener.
“In our opinion, anybody that is doing well could be a starter,” he said. “With the tempo we’re going to see, with the way teams are going to try and attack us, we better have a first starter, a second starter, and a third starter.”
Other names Mattison took upon himself to mention as having had great camps so far were junior Baron Browning, sophomore Teradja Mitchell, and sophomore Dallas Gant. He noted he is surely missing other names worthy of mention for their camp performance.
Mattison said specifically of Gant, “I’ve seen him maybe make the most improvement of any of that group from the spring.” He said he has known Gant since he was a high school senior and added, “All of the sudden, it looks to me like he has really taken a step forward. It’s like he feels comfortable now … it’s no longer like he’s wide-eyed.”
With plenty of talent in place at every level of the defense, Mattison was asked about what he identified as the issues that plagued last year’s unit. However, Mattison refused to dissect last year’s defense, instead hammering home the core belief of the current staff: flying to the football.
“The one thing we believe in, and I have always 100 percent believed in is running to the football,” Mattison said, adding there has been full buy-in from the players on that belief. “And to me, that is what helps your defense overcome any deficiencies … stats are stats … I never even looked at what it was last year. It doesn’t matter to me. The thing that I know we are going to do is we are going to be an aggressive defense that runs to the football. And everybody on our defense believes in that, and that’s why I’m so proud of these kids right now.”
Mattison went to say there could be several reasons for the downplay of the defense last year, from immaturity to lack of experience. However, he reiterated his focus isn’t on last year and is fully on what he has seen from them in camp.
“I am really, really excited about what our kids are doing right now on defense, and it’s our job to get them to play up to the (Ohio State) standard, and that’s being the best there is. That’s Ohio State football.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.