Ohio State coaching staff changes continue on the defensive side of the ball on Thursday.
The program will bring in Perry Eliano as safety coach and Tim Walton as cornerbacks coach, along with newly arrived coordinator Jim Knowles, people familiar with their hires confirmed to The Dispatch.
The school has not made a formal announcement, but linebackers coach Al Washington and defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs will not be held to create the openings.
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Eliano, 43, was the cornerbacks coach at Cincinnati for the past two seasons, where he was credited with shaping the development of decorated cornerbacks Coby Bryant and Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, both pivotal last fall in helping the Bearcats to the first team from a Group of Five conference to reach the College Football Playoff.
Bryant was the recipient of the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defense, while Gardner was also a consensus All-American.
Cincinnati finished second nationally in pass defense, averaging 169 yards per game.
Born in Killeen, Texas, Eliano also served as a defensive coordinator at Bowling Green for a few seasons in 2016 and 2017.
Walton, 50, has been an assistant in the NFL for the past decade, most recently as a cornerbacks coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was also a cornerback for the Buckeyes from 1990-93, bringing him back to his alma mater.
Former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who served on the staff of the Jaguars at Walton last fall, praised him.
“He’s great with the players,” Ash said. “A lot of energy and a very good motivator. Very good teacher. Lots of NFL experience. He was always talking about the Buckeyes and how much he loved his experience there.”
Despite being on the field before Thursday’s moves, the NCAA limit of 10 assistant coaches, the Buckeyes were looking for at least one position coach for their secondary.
In addition to playing for the defense on an interim basis for most of last season, Matt Barnes had coached the defensive backs.
But Barnes left in the wake of the Rose Bowl to become the defensive coordinator at Memphis.
His departure allowed Knowles to come on board on January 2, but it still left them without a secondary coach.
Coombs stopped coaching defensive backs last season to focus on his coordinator role.
He returned to Ohio State in 2020 as an assistant, replacing former defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley who left to become a coach at Boston College.
In his first stint as a staff under former coach Urban Meyer from 2012-17, Coombs had notable success as a cornerback coach, recruiting and developing seven NFL first-round draft picks before leaving for the league himself to coach under Mike. Vrabel with the Tennessee Titans.
His energy on the sidelines during matches also made Coombs a fan favorite.
But past seasons marked the first time Coombs was a college-level coordinator, and he was stripped of his defensive play-call responsibilities after a 35-28 loss to Oregon in Week 2.
At a mid-season press conference, Coombs acknowledged how difficult the relegation had been, but vowed not to let his stance affect him.
His players noticed.
“I want to give Coombs a big compliment,” said freshman defensive back Jack Sawyer before the Rose Bowl. “Obviously the position he was in was not an easy one, he got all that hate on social media and was demoted halfway through the season. It wasn’t easy for him.
“He showed us what it’s like to be a leader and what it’s like to be a real man in this business, the way he got back to work the next day. You never saw him down, always in a positive attitude, watching how we do, and then just trying as hard as he could to coach us, when we saw that, it kind of motivated us because I don’t think people really realize how difficult a position was for him. “
Washington was an assistant to the Buckeyes for three seasons and joined Ryan Day’s inaugural staff in 2019 as a linebacker coach.
He made the rare move to move from Michigan to Ohio, but it was an opportunity for him to return to his native Columbus, where he graduated from Bishop Watterson High School, and his father, Al Sr., was a linebacker for the Buckeyes.
Last offseason, Washington turned down an offer to become a defensive coordinator at Tennessee, a lucrative role that included a seven-figure salary, to remain with Ohio State.
With his departure, it is possible that Knowles will also coach the linebackers in addition to his coordinator duties.
He was not responsible for any position group as a defensive coordinator for four seasons at Oklahoma State, but he was the linebackers coach in addition to the coordinator at Duke in his previous stint.
With the exception of the hiring of Knowles, the bulk of Day’s coaching staff overhaul this offseason has been on the offensive side of the ball, with Justin Frye being tapped as the offensive line coach to replace Greg Studrawa and wide receiver coach Brian Hartline who was promoted to passing game coordinator.
But the defense was the most pressing issue for the Buckeyes to tackle in 2022.
Although they were the nation’s top-scoring team last season, they gave away points in bunches.
In the last two games, they handed up a combined 87 points to Michigan and Utah. it was also only the second time in the program’s history and the first time since 1891 that they had allowed 40 or more points in consecutive games.