Luke Fickell, Scapegoat

It is no secret that the Ohio State defense has not lived up to their typical dominant selves the past two years. Since Jim Heacock has left and Luke Fickell has taken over the defense the Silver Bullets have been at best inconsistent and at worst a swiss cheese like sieve.

While the OSU offense continues setting records, the defense continues to make average opposing quarterbacks look like Joe Montana riding a golden unicorn throwing lightening bolts of joy to the masses. The defense has been blamed for losses to Michigan State which cost OSU a chance at a national title and a BCS Bowl loss to Clemson.

OSU fans always seem to need a scapegoat. Whether it’s an entire unit, in this case the defense or one of the coaches that coaches the defense, in this case Luke Fickell. Before Fickell it was Jim Bollman, who in his time at Ohio State was much maligned for his ultra conservative offense, while the OSU defense was one of the highest rated defenses year in and year out.

While I agree that the defense has struggled, I don’t believe it’s all Luke Fickell’s fault. I also believe the struggles of defense started before Jim Heacock left the Buckeyes.

Ohio State’s national defensive rankings since Luke Fickell was named Co-Defensive Coordinator:

2005: 8th
2006: 2nd
2007: 1st
2008: 7th
2009: 5th
2010: 3rd

2011: 26th
2012: 31st
2013: 28th

Jim Heacock left before the start of the 2012 season. Ohio State’s issues on defense started in 2011, when Jim Heacock was still running the defense. Luke Fickell, sans his head coaching title in 2011 has had the same title since 2005. So in 2011, what changed? How did a once dominant defense go from being ranked consistently in the top ten to a mediocre 26-31st?

Most Buckeye fans would just blurt out, “FIRE LUKE FICKELL.” Or, “THAT DAMN FICKELL (inaudible grunting).”

What changed? Luke Fickell has never run the defense on his own. He’s had Jim Heacock and Everett Withers sharing the title of Co Defensive Coordinator. When OSU’s defense shined….Heacock got the glory. And in 2011, when they began to stumble….Fickell got the blame. And when the great and powerful Urban Meyer took over the team in 2012 Fickell was made the full time scape goat of the defense.

1. Defensive turnover. Ohio State lost an incredible amount of defensive talent via transfers, player injuries etc…

Players That Left By Year:


Adam Bellamy-3 star defensive lineman
Melvin Fellows-5 star defensive end
Jordan Whiting-3 star LBer
Dorian Bell-5 star LBer
Dominic Clarke-4 star DB


Christian Bryant-4 star DB
Jamel Turner-4 star LBer
David Durham-3 star LBer
Scott McVey-4 star LBer
Chad Hagan-3 star LBer


Ken Hayes-4 star defensive end
Conner Crowell-3 star LBer
Jeremy Cash-3 star safety
Derjuan Gambrell-4 star defensive back


Se’von Pittman-4 star defensive end
David Perkins-4 star LBer
Luke Roberts-3 star LBer
Devan Bogard-4 star safety
Najee Murray-4 star defensive back


Michael Hill- 4 star defensive lineman
Donavon Munger-4 star defensive lineman
Jayme Thompson-4 star safety

That is a TON of talent to not have at ones disposal. I won’t get into the reason each of these players left, but none of them have to do with Luke Fickell. It would have been nice to have that depth and talent at times the past two seasons. every team deals with turnover, but the amount of turnover on the defensive side of the ball has been tough to deal with.

2. New defensive regime. Along with Urban Meyer came a group of new defensive coaches. Kerry Coombs coached the cornerbacks and special teams, while Everett Withers was the co-defensive coordinator and coached the safety position. Coombs has been demoted from his position as cornerbacks coach and Everett Withers has accepted the head coaching position at James Madison. Both coaches have been replaced by one man, Chris Ash who has taken over the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coaching positions. He will be charged with revamping a terrible OSU pass defense.

OSU Pass Defense Ranking:


In the 2 years since OSU was ranked a respectable 14th in the country in pass defense, they dropped to 112th. ONE HUNDRED AND TWELFTH. Since most OSU fans think it’s Fickell’s fault, what did he change? I’d say nothing. I’d say handing the secondary over to a glorified high school coach in Coombs and an average coach in Withers was a giant mistake.

If Urban Meyer, who is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in college football demoted Coombs and let Withers go to East Bagdad Tech…while allowing Fickell to remain at a position he has held since 2005 that should be quite telling. Urban Meyer wants nothing more than to win football games. If he felt Fickell was detrimental he would have let him go. He didn’t.

3. Fickell’s bestest buddy. Mike Vrabel was brought into the fold in 2011 to coach the linebackers. In 2012 Meyer kept Vrabel on to coach the defensive line. Vrabel ended up leaving to take a job with the Houston Texans in the NFL in the offseason after the loss to Clemson. While Vrabel was a tremendous recruiter he was suspect as a position coach. Vrabel was replaced by longtime PSU coach Larry Johnson, who upon seeing the wealth of talent on the OSU defensive line said he would immediately start regularly rotating defensive linemen more often and situationally. Something Vrabel didn’t do. Vrabel, for right or wrong left his best players in the game for most of the snaps, while backups were just that…backups. This lead to players getting winded when OSU needed them the most. I remember game one of the Urban Meyer regime vs. Miami of Ohio. Late in the 4th quarter Miami of Ohio was continuing to have success throwing the football and Meyer confronted Vrabel and Fickell on the sideline in what looked like a heated chat. Meyer was upset that there was a lack of pressure…a storyline that has plagued OSU’s defense for 2 years.

I’m not saying OSU fans should give Fickell a pass. He has been the responsible party for the Buckeye defense and their results, as has Urban Meyer. To me, the buck stops with Meyer, not Fickell. Meyer has made the changes he has felt necessary to have a successful defense. We shall see how those changes transform an underperforming defense. Meyer seems to get a pass because he’s a rock star. I hate to say it but up until now Meyer hasn’t won anything at OSU except a couple division titles and 24 games that are largely meaningless. No B10 titles. No Bowl wins. #gottabefickellsfault

I’m saying as a Buckeye fan you need to stop and think about why the OSU defense is actually struggling. There is more that goes into it than “IT’S FICKELL’S FAULT!!!” It’s flat out lazy, ignorant and disrespects a former player and current coach who has given the Buckeyes 5 years as a player and 12 years as a coach, most of which have been highly successful.

Time will tell if the changes in coaching and defensive philosophy will improve the results on the field. One thing is for sure, if the Buckeyes do have greater success on the defensive side of the ball Fickell will likely never receive any of the credit. Too many OSU “fans” have already made up their minds.


  1. I understand the main points you are trying to make, but I respectfully disagree with most of them. Heacock ran a 4-3 under/4-2-5 over cover 3 base defense that deployed zone blitzing on third down. This was in conjunction with defensive players that had exceptionally sound fundamentals. Each year they lost stars as good as or even better than the ones you listed, yet the attention to fundamentals was clockwork, year after year. It was consistent within an expected range.

    In Fickell’s year as HC, he kept the schemes but the fundamentals dropped off, which we gave him slack for because the whole program was in chaos and any success/failure of the defense had to be viewed in the context of an offense that year where Braxton threw once or twice a game.

    Then when Meyer came, he wanted to implement Heacock’s old base schemes with Withers’ cover 4 approach. It failed terribly, and it failed directly because Withers and Fickell could not make it work. All that was left was to try and create a defense out of the base fronts they knew and the cover 4 scheme. The problem was that the players OSU had were not developed for the fundamentals required for this type of defense – they were still being taught Heacock’s way, only being asked to use it in a Fickell/Withers scheme. They were woefully undercoached, not developed, and underprepared for what they were being asked to do.

    The reason that Fickell is responsible is because he (1) stubbornly stuck to his views even though they weren’t working or compatible, and (2) completely failed at developing players to fit into the new scheme that Meyer envisioned. Unbelievably talented players like Roby stagnated or regressed, and the highly rated recruits never progressed. Worse yet, there was no improvement seen over a season – a dead giveaway to a system that had reached its plateau.

    I think Fickell is a fine coach, I think he’ll be a good HC someday. But in all honesty, he has struggled mightily for several years and classes of players in a row now.

    • You say in Fickell’s year as HC, he kept the schemes but the fundamentals dropped off. Why would that be his fault and not Heacock’s? Heacock was still running the defense. The only new coach was Vrabel on the defense. With the defensive coaches still in place, why would the fundamentals magically stop being taught by the same coaches that were always there in the successful years of the defense?

      You also say that Braxton Miller threw once or twice a game? This isn’t remotely close. He averaged 13 passing attempts per game. His lowest was 4 attempts vs. Illinois. Not sure what his passing attempts have to do with anything anyway…

      You also say that Meyer wanted to implement Heacocks base defense meshed with Withers secondary philosophy. What does that have to do with Luke Fickell? So Fickell take ALL or most of the blame because of an idea Meyer had that didn’t work? He also get the blame for Withers secondary philosophy? How does that work? It really does sound like it’s Meyer and Withers doing…

      How is Fickell the one who is stubborn if he was having a philosophy forced onto him? How is Fickell responsible for secondary players like Roby regressing?

      I would argue that the players were not undercoached but overcoached. One thing that Ash noticed right away was the fact that the defense was far too complicated. Too much thinking was required and on defense that is a recipe for disaster. Defense is read and react. When you throw in too many defensive keys it slows down that process.

      Meyer is no defensive mastermind…and shouldn’t have tinkered with a system that has worked for a long, long time.

      I asked the question “what changed.”

      You answered the question. Meyer brought in Withers and Withers wanted to run what he knew. Meyer knew this and forced it upon Fickell. If anyone is to blame it’s Meyer, then Withers…then Fickell.

      And you can’t just brush aside the fact that OSU lost 22 players….and that isn’t considering the players that left early for the NFL. Like I said, every team runs into this, but the amount of defensive players OSU lost in that time was staggering. Anytime you have to START a fullback at MLBer you have serious depth issues.

  2. To expound on one more point: I agree with the notion that Meyer is the one ultimately responsible. However, knowing what we know about HCs, it would only be Meyer’s fault if he either (1) didn’t do anything to fix the problem by shuffling personnel, or (2) repeated attempts with different personnel prove to be ineffective.

    In other words, enough time has passed to fault Fickell, while not enough time has passed to fault Meyer (yet). But fans should definitely continue to be critical of Meyer on the matter – especially if Ash has struggles.

    • Meyer has shuffled the staff. Coombs got demoted and he let Withers go to some terrible school to coach. If he was happy with them he would have kept Coombs coaching corners and fought for Withers to stay. If he were unhappy with Fickell he would have given him the Withers treatment. But Fickell stayed….what does that tell you?

  3. sportsMonkey says

    I should have been more clear about the Haecock thing… Fickell is a Haecock disciple, and that’s the tie-in. So by “Haecock scheme,” I meant “Fickell scheme.”

    Obviously I was exaggerating with the passes per game comment – the point that was missed was that the 2011 struggles on defense had to be viewed in the context of the fact that they were always put in poor situations due to the offensive struggles.

    As for Meyer’s shuffling, keep in mind that Fickell was demoted. He kept his title, but Meyer inserted Larry Johnson over him as co-head coach. That was Fickell’s job. Essentially, Fickell will no longer advise on overall scheme – he is defense only; and half of that job is shared with Ash. if you’ve watched much CFB, this is always what happens when someone is being given their last chance.

    Fickell is not a scapegoat. His criticism is valid. He’s not Superman for crying out loud and some perfect human being. Some people work better in some environments than others. Fickell shined under Tressel and Haecock, and didn’t under Meyer and Withers. Maybe he’ll be awesome with fewer responsibilities now and working under Johnson and Ash. I hope so – he’s a good guy and is an OSU man through and through.

    • The 2011 offense held onto the ball longer than the 2012 offense…

      Why doesn’t the 2012 defense get a pass like the 2011 offense?

      Fickell was an assistant head coach? Not according to his bio at or his wiki site. Actually Withers held the title of assistant head coach.

      Fickell’s title remains the same as it was since 2005. When you say Fickell was advising on overall scheme, what does that mean? He’s in the same position he’s been in since 2005…sharing the title of co-defensive coordinator with another coach.

      Fickell has 100% been THE scapegoat for the under performing OSU defense. Even though other factors have lead to the demise of a once great defense. I’d say Fickell has very little to do with the back half of the defense. A back half that was God awful for the past two years. 78th and 112th in 2012 and 2013. Fickell concentrates on the front seven…coaching the linebackers.

      National Rushing Defense:

      2012: 14th
      2013: 9th

      National Passing Defense:

      2012: 78th
      2013: 112th

      One of these things is not like the other.

      I know what you are thining…what is the average yards per rush…that’ll tell a different story.

      National Rushing Yards Per Carry:

      2012: 21st
      2013: 12th

      National Sacks Ranking:

      2012: 38th (actually a pretty standard OSU ranking)
      2013: 3rd

      LOL…..the more I look into it and continue to peel away the onion the more I believe Withers and Coombs were the major problem….not Fickell.

  4. sportsMonkey says

    The only constant throughout OSU’s defensive decline has been Fickell. Haecock’s gone, Withers and Coombs have been reshuffled – indicating that Meyer and Smith place part of the blame on them.

    Official bio pages or not, it was commonly known that Fickell was Meyer’s right hand man, especially after his stint as HC. It was also well known in the program that Fickell was relieved of many responsibilities after the 2013 fiasco.

    OSU lost a chance to play in the NC because of its defense. Under Fickell’s watch, the defense gave up 21 more points per game and lost two postseason games by a combined 74 points.

    Defensive coaches have left and brought in. Defensive coaches have been reshuffled. The only constant is Fickell, no matter how much effort is spent pretending otherwise.

    I will guarantee you that this is Fickell’s last chance. If the defense doesn’t improve this year, he’ll be gone.

  5. THAT IS MY POINT (loud internet yelling) Hahahahaha

    MY entire point is that Fickell has been blamed incorrectly by fans for the majority of the defensive struggles. No talk of Withers, Vrabel, Coombs, Meyer or the offense.

    What responsibilities are you referring to exactly?

    It lost it’s opportunity to play for a national title and win a BCS bowl because of an entire team let down…and not just a defensive letdown.

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