NCF Nation: 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.

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."
Ohio State already had started paying more competitive salaries for assistant coaches before Urban Meyer arrived in November 2011.

But when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith sat down to discuss staff pay, Smith soon realized he needed to do more.

"I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators," Smith recalled last week during Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. "So we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more. Any time there's change, you have that opportunity."

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan DC Greg Mattison ranks as the highest-paid assistant coach in the Big Ten for the 2013 season.
"Everyone's always focused on head coaches' salaries," Smith continued. "That's always the thing. But really when you look at the changes, it's really been assistants' salaries across the country -- not just in the SEC, but the Big 12, Pac-12, all across the country."

The Big Ten is part of the change, too, as the league is allocating more money toward football assistants than ever before. The Detroit Free Press has an excellent look at Big Ten assistants' salaries, complete with a database that includes 10 of the 12 current members (Northwestern doesn't submit salaries as a private institution, and Penn State doesn't have to because of state laws).

The Free Press found that eight of the 10 schools are paying more for assistants in 2013 than they did in 2012 (only Indiana and Illinois are not). There are some significant total increases, such as Wisconsin (up $558,000), Nebraska (up $518,500), Purdue ($400,000) and Minnesota ($355,000). Staff pay had been an issue at Wisconsin, which lost six assistant coaches following the 2012 Rose Bowl, and at Purdue, which paid less for its staff during the Danny Hope era than any Big Ten school.

The total trend among the 10 schools is an increase of $1,720,852.24 for 2013.

Ohio State and Michigan remain No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten staff salary, as the Buckeyes allocate $3.416 million and the Wolverines allocate $2.805 million. Nebraska and Wisconsin make the biggest moves in the league for 2013, as the Huskers rise from sixth to third and the Badgers rise from seventh to fourth.

Illinois, which replaced five assistants from the 2012 team, including co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, dropped from third in staff pay ($2.314 million) to eighth ($2.065 million).

The database shows that nearly every Big Ten assistant with "coordinator" in his title -- whether he's the sole coordinator or a co-coordinator -- will earn north of $300,000 for 2013. Only 18 assistants listed will make less than $200,000 in 2013 -- 15 work for Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.


Some notes:

  • Although Wisconsin paid former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst good coin, the school has increased its commitment for Gary Andersen's staff, not only with the coordinators but with some coveted position coaches like running backs coach Thomas Hammock ($300,000).
  • All of Nebraska's assistants are earning $200,000 or more for 2013, but there's a huge drop-off between Beck and the next highest-paid assistant (defensive coordinator John Papuchis at $310,000).
  • Michigan State has a similar drop off between Narduzzi and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($270,000) and Jim Bollman ($260,000). Warner will be the primary offensive play-caller and has been on Mark Dantonio's staff since 2006, while Bollman is a newcomer.
  • Although Michigan is paying top dollar for its coordinators, the school gets its assistants for a relative bargain. Receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will earn $225,000 in 2013, while the others all will earn $205,000. Ohio State, meanwhile, pays all but one of its assistants $286,000 or more.
  • The Big Ten's three lowest-paid assistants all are in their first years: Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy ($125,000) and Purdue linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and running backs coach Jafar Williams (both at $120,000).
  • Although schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa ($325,000) pay their coordinators the exact same amount, others have slight differences in salary. Purdue's Shoop makes $5,000 more than defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($340,000) makes $5,000 more than offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Wonder if that leads to any underlying jealousy?
  • Most Big Ten schools have assistant salaries in round numbers, but there are some interesting totals from Indiana, which pays co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Kevin Johns $255,500.04 and new recruiting coordinator/assistant defensive line coach James Patton $173,740.08. Never know when that change can come in handy.

The Big Ten still lacks some of the OMG totals seen in the SEC -- LSU is paying new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron $3.4 million in the next three years -- but the overall trend puts the league more on par with what we're seeing nationally.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Just about every preseason story on Ohio State will mention the youth of the defense. Head coach Urban Meyer has said on more than one occasion that the Buckeyes have "a leadership void" they must fill.

Well, it makes sense to look first to the back end of the defense for those answers. One place where Ohio State has plenty of experience is at safety, where seniors Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett are both third-year starters. The secondary also boasts an All-American in Bradley Roby, who's never been afraid to speak his mind.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesBradley Roby admits he was a selfish player last season, but now he's embracing more of a leadership role.
"I think it's important that me, Christian and Roby take ownership of the defense," Barnett told ESPN.com. "We've got a lot of young guys who look up to us."

Defensive leaders more often are found closer to the line of scrimmage, as those guys are involved in more plays and gain respect for their physicality. But Ohio State is replacing all four defensive linemen from last year and has only one holdover starter -- Ryan Shazier -- at linebacker.

"It's probably a little harder to lead at that [safety] position," said Everett Withers, who coaches the Buckeyes' safeties in addition to serving as assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator. "But C.J. and Christian have played a lot of snaps, and the front guys and the linebackers all respect those guys for what they've done here. When you have respect from your peers, that makes it a little bit easier."

That's not to say that Bryant and Barnett are satisfied with their accomplishments.

Though they've both played a lot for the Buckeyes -- and Bryant was a second-team All-Big Ten performer last year -- Barnett said the safeties have "underachieved" thus far during their careers. That's a message that seems filtered down from their coaches, who are demanding more.

"He's right on point; I think they have underachieved," Withers said. "No disrespect to what's been done in the past, but when you play safety at a place like Ohio State, you've got a great tradition of safety play. And when guys don't have a ton of production going into their senior year you wonder why. And I've wondered why since I've gotten here. So there's been a big push for us to see how we can be more productive on the field, and in turn, that will allow us to be better leaders off the field."

Though Bryant finished second on the team with 70 tackles, he has only one career interception. Barnett has four career picks in 32 games. Ohio State led the Big Ten last year in interceptions with 14 in 12 games, but Withers called that "a low number" and said the Buckeyes dropped another 14 potential interceptions.

That's why, during spring practice, every Buckeyes defensive back had to drop and do pushups if a ball hit their hands and they didn't make the interception, no matter how tough the catch would have been.

"Myself, I had about six or seven drops last year," Barnett said. "That's unacceptable. Coach said that PBU's [pass break-ups] are not acceptable here. We need interceptions.

"That's huge for field position, and when you've got an offense like we do and you can get the ball back in Braxton [Miller]'s hands, that's leading to points for us. Missing those opportunities are huge and could possibly cost us a game."

Production wasn't really an issue in 2012 for Roby, although he'd like to grab more than two interceptions this season. But Roby didn't view himself as a leader last season. This year, Meyer said, "he's got to be" one.

"I was kind of a selfish player last year, only worrying about me," Roby said. "At cornerback, you really are out there on an island, and so you start thinking the game is only you and the receiver. I was taking that viewpoint. But I'm opening it up now, and I know I've got to talk to the D-linemen, the linebackers and everybody and make sure they know what they're doing, because they might not be as far advanced as I am."

The best players often make the best leaders. And with their experience and talent, the Buckeyes' secondary has a chance to be both of those things.

"It's just a matter of us going out there and making the plays we need to make," Barnett said. "If we handle our business, we'll definitely be in the conversation of being the best secondary in the nation."
Iowa's 2012 recruiting class included two Floridians in wide receiver Greg Mabin (Fort Lauderdale) and defensive end Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara (Weston). The Hawkeyes' most recent recruiting haul included no players from the Sunshine State -- a first in the Kirk Ferentz era.

This is no accident.

I must have missed it from last winter, but Ferentz said he's no longer assigning an assistant coach to recruit Florida. Then Tuesday night, Iowa recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson told an I-Club gathering in Des Moines that Florida is no longer a priority area for the program's recruitment.

I think I just choked on some orange juice and spilled some sun screen.

We're talking about Florida, right? The state that produced four of the top six players and 22 of the top 100 players in the 2013 class, according to ESPN Recruiting? The state often grouped with Texas and California as the nation's top recruiting hotbeds?

Yes, that Florida.

All but two Big Ten teams (Iowa and Michigan) signed at least one Floridian earlier this month. Indiana and Purdue both signed five.

The Iowa coaches think the program needs to concentrate recruiting closer to campus. The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette's Marc Morehouse notes that Iowa went to St. Louis, a city that has produced recent stars like Adrian Clayborn and Marvin McNutt, for three recruits in the 2013 class. Iowa also has had recruiting success in other Midwestern cities like Chicago and Indianapolis, and signed a Detroit prospect (safety Desmond King) on Feb. 6.

There's nothing wrong with prioritizing your backyard and places where you've had success. But ignoring Florida just doesn't make a lot of sense.

Iowa did well in the Sunshine State early in Ferentz's tenure, luring players like defensive tackle Colin Cole, linebacker Abdul Hodge and wide receiver Mo Brown. Former assistant Bret Bielema was Iowa's primary recruiter in Florida and left the Hawkeyes following the 2001 season, but other Iowa assistants continued to recruit the state.

As pointed out here and here, Iowa has had many more misses than hits with Florida prospects since 2002. Several players transferred, including running backs Jeff Brinson and De'Andre Johnson. The jury is out on other Florida recruits, including quarterback Jake Rudock, who could start this coming season.

I'm still waiting for a good reason for Iowa to back away from Florida. Sure, Iowa has had a run of bad luck with Florida recruits. But should it stop trying? I can think of 22 reasons -- and many more from the 2013 class -- to keep investing time and money there.

Big Ten teams can't expect to compete at a national elite level by recruiting solely in the Midwest. Prioritizing states like Florida -- along with Georgia, Texas and California -- is a must for Big Ten programs.

It's great to see coaches develop talent and several Big Ten programs, including Iowa, have done that well over the years. But there's a ceiling for teams trying to win with overlooked recruits from the heartland. Too many Big Ten teams -- not just Iowa -- seem to fall into this trap. Penn State just signed its first Florida recruit (safety Neiko Robinson) in more than a decade. That's insane.

It still comes down to talent, and there's just more of it in the South. Big Ten teams need to compete in states like Florida. Will they get all the top players? Of course not. But with the right coaches and strategy, they can help their teams get better.

Sure, Iowa lost Bielema, who continued his Florida recruiting push as Wisconsin's head coach and will carry it on at Arkansas. Iowa lost another Florida recruiter when Rick Kaczenski left for Nebraska in 2011.

But Ferentz has had plenty of chances to hire assistants with Florida roots the past two seasons. Iowa's staff is in an unprecedented period of flux, and Ferentz has brought in six new assistants since the end of the 2011 season. None of them could help Iowa made inroads in Florida?

Look how Nebraska secondary coach Terry Joseph, hired last March, has helped the Huskers' recruiting efforts in the South. The same goes for new Big Ten assistants like Everett Withers at Ohio State. Wisconsin would have loved to retain assistant Charlie Partridge because of his recruiting clout in Florida.

Perhaps Iowa can build itself back into a Big Ten title contender without investing in Florida. Re-establishing itself in cities like St. Louis certainly is a good sign.

But Ohio State's coaches continue to mine the South, and Michigan is ramping up its Southern recruiting efforts as well.

In recruiting, you follow the talent. You flock to it. You compete for it.

You don't turn your back on it.

Big Ten signing day superlatives

February, 8, 2013
2/08/13
9:00
AM ET

The Big Ten classes are signed and sealed. You can see ESPN's final class rankings as well as grades for all the Big Ten teams Insider.

As we put a bow on national signing day 2013, let's take a look at some superlatives ...

Biggest winner: Ohio State. The Buckeyes took a great class and made it even better with the additions of elite safety prospect Vonn Bell and four-star receiver prospect James Clark. They also held onto running back recruit Ezekiel Elliott. Plucking Bell out of SEC country made a significant statement, as Ohio State secured the nation's No. 3 class and the best in the Big Ten. Although other Big Ten programs secured strong classes -- Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State -- Ohio State made the most headlines Wednesday.

Best closer: Ohio State co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Everett Withers. Although Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer is unquestionably one of the nation's top closers, Withers merits a mention here after steering Bell to sign with the Scarlet and Gray. "I've seen some really good efforts," Meyer said Wednesday. "Everett Withers from start to finish, his effort on Vonn Bell, as good as I've ever seen." Bell's high school coach called Withers the "most proficient and professional recruiter we've ever dealt with," according to The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. Withers played a major role in Ohio State securing five defensive backs ranked in the top 50 by ESPN Recruiting.

Biggest surprise: Indiana and Penn State. The Hoosiers have reached only one bowl game since the 1993 season and boast just five wins the past two seasons, but things are looking up in Bloomington. Kevin Wilson and his staff signed what appears to be a very solid recruiting class, especially on the defensive side, where IU has struggled for years. The Hoosiers signed two four-star defensive linemen from within the state -- Darius Latham and David Kenney III -- and bolstered the secondary with Rashard Fant and others. Penn State overcame NCAA scholarship sanctions and a multiyear bowl ban to sign the nation's No. 24 class, headlined by quarterback Christian Hackenberg, rated by ESPN Recruiting as the nation's top pocket passer.

Who flipped/biggest loss: The only notable intra-league flip on signing day -- and it wasn't a major surprise -- saw linebacker Reggie Spearman, a one-time Illinois commit, signing with Iowa. Ohio State (Taivon Jacobs) and Wisconsin (Marcus Ball) lost commits to Maryland and Arizona State, respectively, while Minnesota made a late flip with junior college linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, who was expected to sign with Kansas State. But for the most part, Big Ten teams played good defense on signing day.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Bradley Roby came to Ohio State with a specific plan mapped out.

Redshirt the first year, in part because the Buckeyes had two senior starters returning at cornerback (Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence). Check.

Earn a starting job as a redshirt freshman and keep it throughout Year 2 in the program. Check.

Cover the Big Ten's best wide receivers -- including four selected in last month's NFL draft -- both in games and in Buckeyes practices. Check.

"That's what I put all my efforts into," Roby told ESPN.com, "and I'm glad it came to fruition."

One item not included on Roby's plan was upset a future first-round pick with both skills and trash talk. But he succeeded in doing so during Ohio State's victory at Illinois in October. Roby held Illini star receiver A.J. Jenkins to 80 yards and no touchdowns -- Jenkins came in averaging 135.8 yards and 1.2 touchdowns per game. Roby also set up Ohio State's first touchdown with a 36-yard interception return.

Roby had sparked some fireworks earlier in the week when he described Jenkins as "decent, but he's nothing special, really." Jenkins had proclaimed himself the Big Ten's top receiver earlier in the season, and he had been backing it up. Roby now says the media spun his comments "out of control" but admits his words added excitement to the game.

The Buckeyes cornerback doesn't hide the fact he likes to talk trash during games, but most of his targets don't return fire. Jenkins did.

"I guess that's because I got in his head," Roby said. "Because if they're not responding to you, most likely they’re trying to ignore you. But if they're yelling back at you, it means you're getting to them. So keep doing it."

Roby will keep yapping, and he'll continue seeking out the best competition. Last fall, he lined up across from standouts like Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham and Wisconsin's Nick Toon. He already has watched some tape of California standout Keenan Allen, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2011 who will visit Ohio State in Week 3.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Roby also challenged himself in practice by seeking out DeVier Posey, Ohio State's top receiver. Posey played in just three games last season because of suspension, but was drafted in the third round in April.

"I always would want to go against DeVier last year to make sure I'm getting better," Roby said. "You only get better when you go against better people. If you can hang with DeVier, you can hang with any receiver in the Big Ten."

Ohio State's lack of depth at receiver entering 2012 is well documented, and asked who he sought out this spring, Roby replied, "Nobody, really." Still, he has a good eye for talent. When we talked two days before Ohio State's spring game, Roby spotted freshman Michael Thomas walking by and told me to look out for him. Thomas ended up recording 12 catches for 131 yards in the spring game.

Roby spent much of the spring working on off-man coverage, a focal point for new secondary coaches Everett Withers and Kerry Coombs. Ohio State played mostly press coverage in 2011 and will continue to do so, but off-man will be a bigger part of the scheme going forward. Roby welcomes the change.

"If you're a good athlete, anybody can play press," he said. "Coach Withers told me that's one thing in the [NFL] a lot of corners don't know how to do when they come from college. They just press, and they can't play off-man. Some teams need their corners to play off-man, so if you can't do that, you can't play. So me being able to learn this at this age, having three years left eligibility-wise, it will definitely help me by the time I get to that next level."

The next level is certainly part of Roby's plan, and broadening his coverage skills is crucial in taking that step.

"Technique, eyes in the right place, making sure you stay low," he said. "You've got to be disciplined to play off-man, because one false move, it's a touchdown."

Roby made some false moves during his first season in the fire, but he also showed he's a playmaker, tying for the team lead in interceptions (3), leading the team in pass breakups (6) and adding a forced fumble and 3.5 tackles for loss. The rapid rise didn't surprise Roby, who, in case it's not obvious, oozes confidence.

"To be a DB, you've got to have that," Buckeyes safety C.J. Barnett said. "You've got to think you're the best out there, because you don't have confidence, you're going to get beat. Roby, he exerts that. I really wasn’t surprised by what he did last year. We all knew that he was good. He just needed his time and he stepped up."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Like most coaches, Ohio State's Luke Fickell has neither the time nor the desire to look backward.

Fickell isn't going to publish his memoirs about his 182-day term as Ohio State's head coach last year, when he guided his alma mater through an adversity-filled season that produced subpar results on the field. After Ohio State named Urban Meyer as its head coach on Nov. 28, Fickell's life didn't exactly slow down. He coached the Buckeyes through their bowl game, interviewing for Pitt's head-coaching vacancy during the span, before opting to remain with Ohio State as defensive coordinator. When Meyer introduced his staff at a Jan. 15 Ohio State men's basketball game, Fickell received the loudest ovation.

Since then, Fickell has spent most of his time recruiting, with some coaching sprinkled in this spring.

[+] EnlargeLuke Fickell
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteLuke Fickell says he learned a lot during his brief stint as Ohio State's head coach.
"From the day after the [bowl] game, I pretty much started moving on into the next page," Fickell told ESPN.com. "Since then, we've had spring break off, so that was probably about the only time you may have had to reflect, but you were so far into everything else. ... Then again, I'm not a person that is going to dwell upon the past."

He might not dwell on what happened, but he hasn't forgotten, either. The unique situation provided lessons for a young coach.

"There's things you take from every experience, but especially that one," Fickell said. "Not just about being a head coach, but being in the midst of adversity. It's everything from how you react and respond to how others around you react and respond to how an 18-year-old reacts and responds, to a 22-year-old. There was an incredible amount of things learned, not just about what things would I do different, but more emotionally."

Fickell is back in the familiar role of assistant coach, a position he held at Ohio State from 2002 until Jim Tressel's resignation on Memorial Day of 2011. The 38-year-old shares coordinator duties with coaching veteran Everett Withers, and he'll also coach the linebackers, as he did from 2005-2010.

Fickell shared defensive coordinator duties with Jim Heacock before taking over the head-coaching duties, but Heacock was regarded as the unit's leader. The 2012 season marks the first where Fickell moves into the primary play-calling role, although he downplays the idea that he'll have more ownership with the defense.

"In 2002, it wasn't Mark Dantonio's defense," Fickell said. "It was Ohio State's silver bullet defense. In '05, when Jim Heacock and myself were doing our thing, it wasn't our defense. It was every bit [former assistant] Paul Haynes' defense and [former assistant] Tim Beckman's defense."

Withers has been a defensive coordinator at three FBS programs (North Carolina, Minnesota and Louisville) and boasts NFL experience with the Tennessee Titans and New Orleans Saints. He also shares a kinship with Fickell after serving as North Carolina's interim head coach last season.

While Fickell stepped into a tough situation on Memorial Day, Withers' promotion came even later, as he took over July 28 for the fired Butch Davis. Although they occasionally joke around about their experiences, Withers, like Fickell, hasn't had much time to look back.

"When Coach Withers and I had some opportunities to sit down and spend some time together, there were no egos involved," Fickell said. "That's Coach Meyer's biggest thing. He said, 'The most important thing is I want an alignment with the staff.' ... That's why we've been successful here and been good, not just at Ohio State but on defense as well."

Fickell inherits a defense that returns nine starters, including All-America defensive end John Simon, but backslid at times last season. Although Fickell spent most of his time with the defense last fall, he's no longer burdened by head-coaching duties.

"He's awesome," Simon said. "With the passion and fire he brings every day, especially with his knowledge of defense, it's great to have him back."

The scheme will remain more or less the same -- "Nothing that anybody would notice unless you were really studying us," linebacker Etienne Sabino said -- and so are the demands.

"We always talk about, 'Be on the same page,'" Sabino said. "We can both look at a play and he'll ask me, 'Is that good or not?' And if I say no, he's probably thinking the same thing. We're on the same page. He would never let you get complacent.

"He's still pushing me just as hard as when I first walked in here. That's great."
The Big Ten saw an unprecedented number of coaching changes during the offseason, as three head coaches were dismissed, Wisconsin's staff lost six assistants and many other moves were made. Barring an unexpected change, only four teams -- Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern -- will return their full staffs intact for the 2012 campaign.

Although the coaching carousel hasn't quite reached its end, Big Ten teams have filled all of their coordinator vacancies for the coming season. The league will have 13 new coordinators at eight different programs.

It's time to pass out quick grades for the coordinator hires (co-coordinators are graded together):

ILLINOIS

Co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty
Previously:
Gonzales was LSU's receivers coach and pass-game coordinator; Beatty was Vanderbilt's receivers coach

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: C

Gonzales and Beatty both are strong recruiters who should help bring talented players to Champaign, but they're both young and unproven as playcallers. They should bolster Illinois' receiving corps, but I'd expect a few growing pains on game days as they adjust to bigger roles with a unit that flat-lined late in the 2011 season.

Brian Bennett: B-

Both are energetic guys who should adapt well to Tim Beckman's style, and both were considered up-and-comers. But as Adam mentioned, neither had led an offense before, so it's hard to give this too high a grade yet.

Defensive coordinator Tim Banks
Previously:
Co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Cincinnati

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: A-

After a very successful 2011 season, Illinois' defense is looking for continuity and Banks can provide it. His aggressive style and pressure packages should translate well for a unit that still has a lot of talent in the front seven with linebacker Jonathan Brown, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and others.

Brian Bennett: B+

Vic Koenning declined to stay, and Jon Tenuta took the job for about 20 minutes before deciding to stay at NC State. As a third choice, Banks is a really nice hire and a better fit, in my opinion, than Tenuta would have been. After a tough first year with a Cincinnati defense lacking depth and experience, Banks did a great job turning that unit around in 2011. At Illinois, he merely needs to keep it going.

INDIANA

Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell
Previously:
Offensive coordinator and tight ends coach at Arizona

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: B+

Littrell wasn't the reason Arizona made a coaching change in 2011, as his offense ranked third nationally in passing (370.8 ypg) and 15th in total yards (465.2 ypg). He comes from the fertile Mike Leach coaching tree and should help Indiana's offense become more balanced behind promising quarterback Tre Roberson.

Brian Bennett: A

It isn't easy to hire big-name coaches at Indiana, but Kevin Wilson got a good one as Littrell was left looking for a gig. The addition of Littrell already helped the Hoosiers land promising quarterback Nathan Sudfeld on the recruiting trail.

IOWA

Offensive coordinator Greg Davis
Previously:
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Texas (didn't coach in 2011)

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: B

Davis is an experienced coach who has coordinated offenses at the highest level and won a national title at Texas. He should help James Vandenberg's development at quarterback. The concern is he has been predictable at times and had his most recent success in a spread system, which Iowa likely won't use.

Brian Bennett: C+

Davis oversaw some record-breaking offenses at Texas, but he won't have the same kind of blue-chip talent at Iowa. Then again, in Kirk Ferentz's system, he won't be asked to generate 50 points per game. He's great with quarterbacks, and Ferentz will feel comfortable with a veteran coach who'll keep things simple. But to hire a guy who'd been out of football for a year was not very exciting for a program that probably could have used a battery recharge.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker
Previously:
Defensive backs coach at Iowa

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: B

Parker knows the Hawkeyes' personnel and brings an energetic personality to the defense, but he's not the big-splash addition some were hoping for after Norm Parker's retirement. Phil Parker has coached defensive backs forever but has yet to serve in a coordinator role. It'll be interesting to see how much he actually tweaks the scheme in Iowa City.

Brian Bennett: B-

Parker knows the Hawkeyes defense in and out, and I doubt much will change with the approach now that he is in charge. There was a curiously long time between Norm Parker's retirement and his successor's appointment, and Phil Parker has never been a coordinator before, so that brings my grade down a notch.

NEBRASKA

Defensive coordinator John Papuchis
Previously:
Defensive line coach and special teams coordinator, Nebraska

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: B

Papuchis is a rising star and most likely a head coach in the near future. While I'm tempted to give him a higher grade, he hasn't been a playcaller and is just four years removed from being a football intern at LSU. Inexperience is the only main drawback here.

Brian Bennett: B-

Like Adam said, the grade level is held down here by a lack of previous experience. But every coordinator has to start somewhere, and Bo Pelini has been really high on Papuchis, who has done excellent work everywhere he's been put to use so far. Any growing pains should be offset by the knowledge Pelini can impart as a defensive-minded head coach.

OHIO STATE

Offensive coordinator Tom Herman
Previously:
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Iowa State

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: B+

Herman is regarded as a rising star and a sharp offensive mind who, with the help of Urban Meyer, will inject some life into a bland Ohio State offense. The only potential drawbacks are that he hasn't proven himself in a big-time job like Ohio State, and Iowa State's offensive numbers from 2011 don't exactly jump off the page.

Brian Bennett: B-

Ohio State fans were probably expecting a bigger name when Meyer promised to bring in the best staff in the country. But Meyer has an eye for offensive talent and will be heavily involved in the offensive game planning himself. Though Herman hasn't done it on a major stage, he'll be working with a lot more talent in Columbus, and this grade could easily prove to be an A in the future.

Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers
Previously:
Fickell was Ohio State's head coach; Withers was North Carolina's head coach

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: A-

There's a lot to like about this pair, as both men return to coaching defense after being put in awkward positions last season. It'll be interesting to see how Fickell fares as the primary defensive playcaller. Withers has a few blotches on his résumé (Minnesota 2007) but brings a lot of experience to the table.

Brian Bennett: A

The head-coaching experience both men got last year should only help their development as coaches, and both are excellent recruiters. My only concern is whether there are too many cooks in the kitchen, but there's no reason to believe that Fickell and Withers won't get along and accept their roles. If so, this should work out really well.

PENN STATE

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof
Previously:
Defensive coordinator at Auburn (briefly took Central Florida defensive coordinator job in December)

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: C+

While I loved what Roof did at Minnesota in 2008, his exit from Auburn after some struggles there raises a few red flags. The good news is he steps into a very good situation with Penn State's defense, and he has three good assistants: Larry Johnson, Ron Vanderlinden and John Butler, two of whom (Johnson and Vanderlinden) are holdovers from the previous staff.

Brian Bennett: C

Roof has some very bright spots on his long résumé, but he's also been a serial job-changer whom Auburn fans couldn't wait to see leave town despite the national title. Bill O'Brien could have retained Tom Bradley or promoted Johnson and probably done just as well, if not better. But he has a previous relationship with Roof, so the trust factor should be high.

PURDUE

Defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar
Previously:
Defensive coordinator for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: C

Both the change and the hire surprised me a bit, and Tibesar is a bit of a wild card coming back to college football from the CFL. He knows how to face the spread offense, a primary reason Danny Hope hired him, and had some success in Montreal. But his previous FBS stop at Kansas State resulted in some struggles (117th-rated defense in 2008).

Brian Bennett: C-

If Tibesar pans out as a successful defensive coordinator, perhaps Hope will start a trend of teams looking to the Great White North for assistant coaches. I'll give Hope some credit for making an unconventional choice, but I'm a little skeptical about just how well the CFL experience will translate to college.

WISCONSIN

Offensive coordinator Matt Canada
Previously:
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Northern Illinois

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: B

Canada has extensive coordinator experience, including four seasons in the Big Ten at Indiana, but he has been primarily a spread coach in recent seasons. While he had success running a pro-style system during his first stint at Northern Illinois (2003), he'll have to make some adjustments. The good news: he inherits a lot of talent and understands his main job is to keep the momentum going.

Brian Bennett: B-

I was surprised that Bret Bielema didn't chose someone who was a pro-style disciple through and through given his strong comments about not changing the offense much after Paul Chryst left. As Adam said, Canada knows his stuff and has done some good work as a coordinator. But anytime a coach has to adjust his style to a larger system and not the other way around creates a seed of doubt.
So much for Bill Sheridan's Big Ten homecoming.

Sheridan, hired late last month to coach Ohio State's cornerbacks, is heading back to the NFL. Ohio State confirmed to ESPN.com that Sheridan has left the program to "pursue other opportunities," and The Lantern first reported he'll be joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' staff as defensive coordinator.

The NFL teams from Florida have been poaching Big Ten staffs in recent weeks. The Miami Dolphins added Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe and Purdue secondary coach Lou Anarumo. Sheridan now heads to Tampa to work for new Bucs coach Greg Schiano.

Sheridan spent the previous seven seasons in the NFL but had Big Ten roots as a former assistant at both Michigan (2002-04) and Michigan State (1998-2000). It would have been interesting to see him coach on both sides of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. Hard to fault him for jumping to be a coordinator in the NFL.

Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer will look for a replacement who can work primarily with the cornerbacks. Co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers will coach the safeties.

Spring preview: Leaders Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
10:00
AM ET
After taking a look at the Legends Division outlook for spring practice, it's time to turn the focus to the Leaders Division.

Away we go ...

ILLINOIS

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New faces in new roles: Tim Beckman and his assistants get their first chance to work with the players on the field. Beckman retained only one assistant (defensive line coach Keith Gilmore) from the previous staff, so it'll be important for the players and coaches to get acclimated. It's also a big spring for co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty, both of whom will be primary playcallers for the first time at this level.
  • The quarterbacks: Nathan Scheelhaase is a two-year starter, but he'll have to re-establish himself as the team's top option at quarterback. Reilly O'Toole received a decent amount of field time last season, and Illinois should have a competition under center in spring practice. Both men will have to learn a new offense and show good decision-making skills after combining to throw 12 interceptions last fall.
  • No Merci: All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus is gone, and Illinois will be looking for his replacement this spring. The defensive line could once again be a strength for the Illini, especially with Gilmore back and an aggressive defensive coordinator in Tim Banks. It'll be interesting to see how the coaches use Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples, who played the "bandit" position in the previous scheme and boast speed but don't have typical defensive end size.
INDIANA

Start of spring practice: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Juco fever: Indiana needs a quick fix on defense, and it hopes an influx of junior college players can provide one. Six juco players already are enrolled and will participate in spring practice, including five on the defensive side. It will be interesting to see how players such as defensive back Tregg Waters and linebackers Justin Rayside and Jacarri Alexander perform this spring as they compete to play right away.
  • New direction on offense: Coach Kevin Wilson wants to be more productive in the passing game, and he hired an offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell who can help in that area. Littrell guided an Arizona offense that last season ranked third nationally in passing (370.8 ypg) and 27th in pass efficiency (145.2). He'll try to help Tre Roberson, who Wilson said he thinks can elevate his game significantly as a passer despite throwing twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (three) as a freshman.
  • Who has grown up: Indiana played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt) in 2011, the most in the FBS. The early experience should pay off for several players, and Indiana needs them to grow up quickly during the spring. Roberson showed a lot of promise at quarterback, and safety Mark Murphy finished second on the team with 76 tackles. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Bobby Richardson and receiver/returner Shane Wynn.
OHIO STATE

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Urban renewal: The mood has improved around Ohio State's program from the moment Urban Meyer stepped to the podium Nov. 28. After putting together his staff, signing an elite recruiting class and ticking off some of his Big Ten coaching colleagues, Meyer finally gets a chance to work with the players on the practice field. After a lackluster final season at Florida in 2010, Meyer says he's refreshed and recharged, and it'll be interesting to see how he attacks practices.
  • The new offense: Ohio State fans can't wait for a new offense after suffering through a 2011 season that featured some extremely questionable play-calling. Meyer's offensive system is well-known throughout college football, but the interesting thing this spring will be how Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman blend their ideas. Herman is a dynamic young coach who impressed a lot of folks at Iowa State. But Ohio State is a different animal, and expectations will be high for quarterback Braxton Miller and the unit.
  • Fickell back on defense: After spending last season as Ohio State's head coach, Luke Fickell returns to an assistant role on the defensive side. And for the first time, Fickell will be the Buckeyes' primary defensive playcaller. Ohio State's defense took a step back last season and will be looking to regain its traditional form. Fickell will work alongside co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers and look to identify some leaders to complement defensive lineman John Simon.
PENN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 26
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • O'Brien's time: Much will be made of Penn State opening spring ball without Joe Paterno, but the real story is how critical these practices will be for new coach Bill O'Brien and his team. Penn State will be acclimating to new systems on both sides of the ball and a new coaching style from O'Brien and his assistant coaches, all but two of whom are from the outside. The learning curve will be accelerated for all involved, as Penn State needs to get a lot done in 15 workouts.
  • The quarterbacks: It's good that O'Brien has extensive experience coaching quarterbacks because no position needs a bigger upgrade at Penn State. The Lions struggled mightily under center last season and need a major boost beginning this spring. Can O'Brien get more out of Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden, both of whom have seen extensive time in the Big Ten? How does Paul Jones factor into the mix? It'll be interesting to see how the signal-callers perform this spring.
  • Filling gaps on defense: Penn State should have one of the nation's best linebacker groups this season, but the Lions need to fill some holes on the line and in the secondary. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still departs, and Penn State will be leaning on Jordan Hill and others to step up. A bigger concern is the secondary, which loses two multiyear starters at safety (Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay). Penn State also has a new defensive coordinator in Ted Roof, who will be looking for better results than he had at Auburn.
PURDUE

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Another quarterback competition: Boilers coach Danny Hope loves having options at quarterback, and he'll once again get his wish during spring practice. Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve,Rob Henry and Sean Robinson all boast starting experience and will vie for the No. 1 job when workouts resume. Henry, who sizzled last spring and would have started the season if not for a torn ACL, has been cleared to participate in noncontact drills. Marve received an extra year of eligibility and will be in the mix. TerBush started every game last season.
  • Tisebar takes over: Purdue has a new defensive coordinator for the third consecutive season, as Tim Tisebar takes over this spring. Tisebar returns to college football after spending the past three seasons with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. Hope hired Tisebar to help Purdue improve against the spread offense and the zone-read game. It will be interesting to see what spin Tisebar puts on the defense as the Boilers enter a pivotal season.
  • Offensive line depth: One of Purdue's strengths last season is a bit light on bodies following several departures. The Boilers need a left tackle to replace Dennis Kelly, and they also must increase depth on the interior line. Purdue already has moved tight end Robert Kugler to center, and Hope said earlier this month that several other tight ends could practice at offensive tackle during the spring.
WISCONSIN

Start of spring practice: March 17
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • A revamped staff: Bret Bielema hired six new assistant coaches during the winter months, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The new coaches will have their first opportunity to work with players on the field this spring. It's important for both sides to acclimate, mainly because Wisconsin has had tremendous success the past two seasons and doesn't want the staff shakeup to throw things off course. Quarterback Russell Wilson made a seamless transition to the program last summer. Let's see if the new assistants can do the same in spring ball.
  • The quarterbacks: Speaking of Wilson, he departs Madison, leaving a major void under center. Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips are coming off of major injuries, and while they're both making progress it could be tough to get a gauge on them this spring. Canada will spend much of his time working with Joel Stave and Joe Brennan, who need to get comfortable with Canada's adjustments to the offense and start establishing themselves as potential team leaders.
  • Reloading up front: Wisconsin will have to replace two All-American offensive linemen for the second consecutive year, and the Badgers lose three All-Big Ten selections up front (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby). While the Badgers are built to reload, offensive line coach Mike Markuson has a lot of evaluating to do this spring. On the defensive line, Wisconsin loses two starters (Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu) and will be looking for some difference-makers. End David Gilbert returns to the mix after missing most of last season with a broken foot.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two topic is this: What has been the best assistant coaching hire in the Big Ten so far this offseason?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
AP Photo/Brandon WadeDefensive line coach Larry Johnson provides some continuity amid the recent upheaval surrounding the Penn State staff.
It's not an outside hire but rather an assistant retained from the previous staff. Penn State's Bill O'Brien made an excellent decision immediately after getting the job in keeping defensive line coach Larry Johnson on staff. Johnson has been Penn State's lead recruiter for years and one of the best in the Big Ten. As Penn State goes through a transition and enters an uncertain future, having Johnson on staff to spearhead recruiting should really help. Johnson recruits the talent-rich Washington D.C./Maryland/Virginia area well and is a known name with Pennsylvania high school coaches. He also has a strong record as a position coach developing defensive linemen like Tamba Hali, Aaron Maybin, Jared Odrick and, most recently, Devon Still. Johnson can help maintain some continuity on Penn State's defense, which isn't the unit that needs a serious upgrade on this team. Every assistant is evaluated as both a recruiter and as a talent-developer. Johnson excels at both, and he also can help O'Brien and Penn State through a historic transition.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

That's a good choice, Adam, and certainly an excellent decision by Bill O'Brien. I'm going to go with a guy who wasn't part of a program before but made a stellar addition: Everett Withers at Ohio State. Urban Meyer promised to bring in a top-notch staff, and Withers is the headliner of that group. He was the interim head coach at North Carolina last season and before that led some extremely talented and productive defenses for the Tar Heels. Withers has been a defensive coordinator in the Big Ten before (at Minnesota) and is regarded as one of the top teachers of defensive back play in the country. He's also a good recruiter whose ties to North Carolina played a big role in the Buckeyes landing linebacker Jamal Marcus in this class. When paired with holdover Luke Fickell -- another great call by Meyer -- Withers should help Ohio State reclaim its Silver Bullets legacy as one of the top defenses in the nation.

Q&A: Ohio State coach Urban Meyer

February, 2, 2012
2/02/12
2:12
PM ET
Urban Meyer hasn't coached a game yet at Ohio State, but his impact on the Big Ten has already been massive.

Though he was only hired in late November, Meyer managed to put together an impressive first recruiting class that ESPN ranked as the sixth-best in the country. Several players in the class were at one time committed to other league schools. The Buckeyes put together one of the best groups of defensive linemen in the country as well.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andrew Weber/US PresswireNew Ohio State coach Urban Meyer made an immediate impact on the recruiting trail.
I caught up with Meyer on Thursday morning to talk about the class, whether there's such a thing as a "gentleman's agreement" in recruiting, and how he expects his recruits to see the field right away.

Did you expect to sign a class this highly rated, given how little time you had to put it all together?


Urban Meyer: I think it exceeded expectations a little, especially on the D-line. If you had told me in December that we would get those four defensive linemen in this class and the two offensive tackles ... that's what separated this class I think, from being pretty good to being really good.

The class is heavy on the defensive and offensive lines. How much of that was need-based and how much of was just that's what you need to build a foundation?

UM: I think anytime you get a premiere guy like Noah Spence, he knows that we need him. That's the way it is nowadays. Kids want to go somewhere where there's a need. The same with the two offensive tackles, Taylor Decker and Kyle Dodson. We just don't have those body types right now in our program, and they know that. We made that real clear. Their opportunity to play is going to be real quick here.

How did you go about evaluating what you needed in recruiting when you hadn't seen the players on the current roster much in person?


UM: Well, that's where Luke Fickell and Mike Vrabel and Stan Drayton and when Taver Johnson was here, they were the ones [who helped]. Then when I went out to watch practice, I just walked out on the practice field and just kind of watched for a second, and I could tell our offensive line didn't look the way we needed them to look. I could tell we were short on pass-rushers off the edge. And then linebackers. So those are the three areas that we had to get just to be functional. So we attacked it as hard as we could and it all came together.

What do you like about the three big defensive linemen in this class -- Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Se'Vonn Pittman?


UM: Well, number one is they're competitors. They're very high-character guys. To have three guys like that with high character who are very good people, I hate to say that's hard to come across, but it is. And they're all different body types. You've got Noah Spence, who's the pure speed guy coming off the edge, relentless effort. Then you've got Adolphus Washington, who's very thick, lower body and more power. And then you've got Se'Von Pittman, who's a little bit of both. So they all complement each other.

In your experience, and understanding every player is different, how long does it take players with that talent level to make an impact on the field?


UM: We're going to rotate them right away. We don't redshirt here at Ohio State. We're changing that up. We're going to have the culture out here that there's no redshirting. If you don't play here, it's because you're not good enough. It's not because we're holding you back. We're going to recruit the kind of player where we want them on the field right now. That's the approach we took at Florida, and it's the approach we're going to take here.

Is the same thing true with offensive linemen? People say that's the position where it takes guys longer to develop.


UM: Well, Maurkice Pouncey jumped right into it [at Florida], started every game, and in three years he went to the NFL. So if you're recruiting, you lay it out there for them. Usually, linemen take a little longer, but we've played with some young players before.

You mentioned Wednesday that you're not happy with the speed at the offensive skill positions. You're not necessarily done with this class, but was that just not out there for you this year, or is it more of a priority going forward?


UM: Yeah, we're not happy where we're at with our speed and skill on offense. I don't know what we have. I saw on film and looked at the stats, and you would say from statistical analysis and just evaluation that we're not very good at all. But I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and see what happens in spring practice and evaluate them in the offseason, which starts Monday. But we're not where we need to be, by a long shot.

When you learned about the bowl ban, was there a time when you thought this class wouldn't come together nearly as well as it did?


UM: Oh yeah. Devastated. I would say, panic button in December. Absolutely.

What does it tell you about the players who decided to sign with you anyway?


UM: It tells you about the power of this program, too. I mean, Ohio State is Ohio State. It's the most powerful alumni base in the country. It's one of the great stadiums in the history of college football. A great tradition and a great city. So there are so many strengths about it that obviously overcame the negative hit we took.

Is recruiting in the Midwest and primarily vs. Big Ten schools different than recruiting in the SEC? The SEC has a reputation of being more ruthless.


UM: A little bit, but it's hard for me to articulate that. It was a little bit different, but there is still a lot of intense recruiting that goes on up north, as well.

There were a couple of coaches who criticized you for recruiting players who had committed to their schools. I liked the way you answered that question on Wednesday. Is there ever such a thing as a gentleman's agreement in recruiting, or is that a phony thing?


UM: Actually, Will Muschamp and I talked about that, about if a guy is previously committed. Up here, I was hired, and we covered our state and said to players, "Would you be interested?" We had one or two that said they would be interested, and others recruited us. Se'Von Pittman and Taylor Decker came after us.

Coming in as a new head coach at a program, would you even be doing your job if you didn't check in on those recruits?


UM: You've got a responsibility to your home state. Absolutely. There's not a coach in America who's not going to do that, not going to check his own state. You take a job, you're going to check your in-state players to see if they're interested. And if they are, then come on now, let's talk about it. And if they're not ... The young man up at St. Edward [offensive lineman Kyle Kalis, who signed with Michigan] we asked. He said, "I'm solid, I'm good." We said, "Good luck," and we moved on. I didn't call him again.

Could you get a sense of how much just having a coach in place and some stability at Ohio State, as well as your background, helped recruits change their mind?


UM: I think any time there's instability, that causes anxiety for a recruit. So I know with Se'Von Pittman, his comment to me was, "I always wanted to be a Buckeye. I just wanted it to be stable."

There are going to be lingering questions about your health, energy level, etc. Recruiting takes a lot of energy and time. How did you feel out there recruiting again, with all the time and travel it required?


UM: Oh, it was great. Great. No issue at all.

Jamal Marcus was a signing-day addition for you, and you talked about how he blew you away on tape. You really didn't know anything about him before that?

UM: That was one of those Christmas presents I unwrapped when they showed me the highlight video. I mean, he's as good as I've seen on a highlight video. Then you meet the kid and he's a beautiful kid, great family. Everett Withers identified him and brought him up. It's almost a shame to say this, but the first time I shook his hand and even talked to him was when he got on campus. And he blew us away.

He's been listed some places as a linebacker, others as a defensive end ...


UM: Oh, he's a linebacker. Linebacker all the way.

What are the priorities now for you over the next month or so before spring practice begins?


UM: We have a bunch of new coaches, a completely new offensive scheme. So the next month, the priority is to get around our players, get to know them with the new coaches. And No. 2 is to install an offense and defense, and make sure everybody is on the same page, so when we hit March we're up and running.

I talked with offensive coordinator Tom Herman recently, and he said he'd be blending the offense with your philosophies. How is that going on right now?


UM: That's all we're doing. I've hired some very good coaches, very successful coaches. We have a system I have great belief in, but I use the term enhance. If we can enhance our system, we will. And so far we have. It's going very well.

What kind of reports have you gotten from strength coach Mickey Marotti on how offseason workouts are going?


UM: Good. But we haven't really hit it hard yet. We've been kind of introduced to our offseason program. I meet with Mickey nonstop. Constant evaluation. But so far, it's mostly just been indoctrination. On Monday, it starts for real.

How much help has Luke Fickell been in this entire transition process?


UM: Well, there's no agenda with him. He has a true passion and love for Ohio State, and he's a very quality football coach and family man. It's a perfect fit, and his stability and relationships really helped us.

How much are you working on the 2013 class right now?


UM: Oh, we're killing it. We're all over it.
On Tuesday we looked at the 2011 report cards for the Atlantic Division. The Coastal Division is up next:

DUKE

Overview: In the fourth season under coach David Cutcliffe, Duke fans should have expected more. A bowl game was a reasonable -- not to mention attainable -- goal, but the Blue Devils instead fell flat again and ended the season with seven straight losses. The season began on a sour note, as Duke lost to Richmond, 23-21, in the season opener. It was yet another embarrassing loss to an FCS program for the ACC, and a bad start for a program that needed to win every winnable game in order to reach the postseason. Duke reeled off three straight wins to start the season 3-2, but a struggling defense and an inability to win the turnover battle on a consistent basis kept the program from taking another step forward in 2011.

Grade: Can’t spell Duke without a D.

GEORGIA TECH

Overview: The Yellow Jackets were a pleasant surprise for the ACC in the first half of the season, as they started 6-0 and seemed destined for a matchup of two undefeated teams with Clemson on the schedule. Back-to-back road losses to Virginia and Miami not only ruined that plan, but also put Georgia Tech behind in the Coastal Division race. The Jackets lost four of their final six regular season games, including to rival Georgia, and ended the season with a seventh straight bowl loss, this time to Utah. Georgia Tech once again had one of the most productive rushing offenses in the country, but the defense didn’t make the leap of improvement many had expected in the second season under coordinator Al Groh.

Grade: C-

MIAMI

Overview: It was a nightmare of a first season for Al Golden, who was blindsided by an NCAA investigation and had to play the Labor Day season opener against Maryland without eight suspended players. The Canes never truly found an identity and lacked consistency, only putting together back-to-back wins once. Despite the obstacles, Miami scrapped together a six-win season to become bowl-eligible, only to have the administration inform Golden the program would self-impose a bowl ban as a preemptive strike against NCAA sanctions. It’s anyone’s guess as to how much that news affected the team in the season finale loss against Boston College, but the Canes’ 2011 season was sandwiched between bookends of disappointment.

Grade: D+

NORTH CAROLINA

Overview: It could have been a lot worse, considering former coach Butch Davis was fired just days before summer camp began. Interim coach Everett Withers was tasked with keeping the team together, and he exceeded expectations in the first half of the season with a 5-1 start. Talk of Withers making his case to become the program’s next head coach grew louder, but the competition also got tougher. And UNC’s weaknesses were exposed. North Carolina lost four of its final six regular-season games, and Withers was replaced for 2012 and had one foot out the door to Ohio State before the season officially ended. The Tar Heels capped the season with an ugly loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl, and failed to match the eight-win benchmark set by Davis.

Grade: D

VIRGINIA

Overview: Not bad for a team picked by the media to finish fifth in the Coastal Division. Mike London and his Cavaliers exceeded expectations in his second season, not only by becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007, but also by being a legitimate contender for the division title. Virginia played its way right into a showdown with rival Virginia Tech for a spot in the ACC title game. The Cavaliers had one of their worst games of the season when it mattered most, though, and lost 38-0 to the Hokies, proving the balance of power within the state still resides in Blacksburg, along with the Commonwealth Cup. The Hoos didn’t fare much better in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as they lost 43-24 and were crippled by injuries to key defenders. Overall, though, this was a good season for London, and one his players should be able to build upon.

Grade: A-

VIRGINIA TECH

Overview: The Hokies did it again. They upheld their reputation as the most consistent team in the ACC, and at the same time managed to disappoint their fans and the league at the BCS level. Virginia Tech won its fifth Coastal Division crown, and finished with 11 wins for just the sixth time in school history. Probably the most impressive accomplishment for Virginia Tech was its ability to put together one of the nation’s top defenses despite a plethora of injuries to key players, particularly up front. What the Hokies couldn’t do, though, was beat Clemson or Michigan. Virginia Tech lost to Clemson twice, including in the ACC title game, and came up short in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Michigan. The officiating will forever be questioned in that game, but the final verdict will show an otherwise impressive season ending with back-to-back losses.

Grade: A
The NCAA-imposed 2012 bowl ban won't hurt Ohio State in the pocketbook.

The Associated Press reports that the Buckeyes will still receive their share of the Big Ten bowl payout after next season, even though they are ineligible to play in a postseason game. The Big Ten has no rule against ineligible teams receiving a share of the league's payout, which comes from a common pool and is divided equally among the 12 conference teams.

In fact, Ohio State might end up doing better financially in 2012, because schools often spend so much money on travel, tickets and other expenses on their bowl trips that they are lucky just to break even. This time, the Buckeyes can just sit home, incur no expenses and cash the check.

The school's big financial hit actually came at the end of the 2010 season, as Ohio State voluntarily forfeited its $389,000 share of the Big Ten payout as a self-imposed penalty in response to the NCAA investigation.

The Buckeyes are spending more this season on their staff, too, the Columbus Dispatch reports. Urban Meyer officially completed his staff on Thursday, and the nine assistants are making nearly $1 million more than last season's staff. Former head coach Luke Fickell is the highest-paid assistant, making $750,000 as defensive coordinator. Co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers is next at $450,000, and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman will make $420,000.

The Dispatch reports that Ohio State's staff now would rank fifth nationally in pay, based on last fall's salary database compiled by USA Today.

SPONSORED HEADLINES