Vrabel Learning, Imparting Wisdom on Young Buckeyes
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Mike Vrabel had never coached at the collegiate level. In fact, he had never coached at all.
At least nothing more than his kids’ Pee Wee games.
The 36-year old had not even officially retired from his playing career when Luke Fickell snatched him up to be the new linebackers coach at Ohio State.
Mike Vrabel coaches up the Buckeyes.
Photo by Dan Harker
It was a bold hire by a first-time head coach, but Fickell knew Vrabel, and he knew his14 years of NFL experience could prove invaluable for a young football team going through unprecedented adversity.
It turns out, he was right.
Vrabel’s on-field coaching has been a work in progress, but his presence in the locker room has been a reality check for a team that is not used to struggling and not used to losing the way they have through the first seven games of the 2011 season.
“You realize people have gone through bad games, people have gone through bad losses,” said Vrabel, who was one of the first to address the team after their devastating 21-point letdown at Nebraska in week six.
“A lot of people haven't been part of something like that, and I told them that, unfortunately, I had.”
On a much bigger stage.
As an All-Pro linebacker with the New England Patriots, Vrabel was on the verge of the 2007 Super Bowl. The Patriots were 12-4 during the regular season and they had already beaten the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers in the playoffs.
After Asante Samuel returned a Peyton Manning interception for a touchdown, the Pats held a 21-3 halftime lead over Indianapolis in the AFC Championship game. It looked like a wrap that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were headed for another Super Bowl, but the Patriots were outscored 32-13 in the second half and they lost 38-34.
Manning would go on to win his first Super Bowl over the Chicago Bears, but the Patriots also capitalized on that experience.
“Coincidentally, we won the next 18 games in a row,” Vrabel said.
“It's not the end of the world. It can be overcome.”
That Patriots team had a lot more talent on both sides of the ball, but Vrabel still likes what he is seeing out of Ohio State’s defense this season. Especially after what he saw Saturday in the team’s 17-7 win over Illinois.
“I think we see a lot of things we like. We see great effort, we see unmatched toughness, we need to continue to play smarter,” Vrabel said.
“That’s the thing with a young football team. In the fifth or sixth game, they’re still seeing things for the first time. It’s our job to show them those things before they see them in a game.”
That has been the biggest change for Vrabel from life in the NFL to his current role as an assistant coach at Ohio State.
“I would say the biggest difference I see right now is the time we get to spend with our players,” he said.
“What you can realistically expect to get across to them in the limited amount of time we have. It doesn’t matter what we know as coaches, it’s what we can get across to them and what they can absorb.”
For Vrabel, football was life. It was a career and it was what he spent the bulk of every day thinking about. College players don’t have that luxury. They are still students and their practice time is limited by the NCAA.
There is no way the Ohio State coaches could have prepared the players for everything they were going to see against Nebraska, but Vrabel knows they have to better adapt to whatever situation they are facing.
“At some point in time you have to get a stop. You have to make them punt the football,” he said.
“That’s what your job is as a defensive coach and a defensive football player when things are going like that. You have to change the momentum and force them to punt the football.”
Vrabel knows that from his 14 years on the defensive side of the football in the NFL. He was also a two-time Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year at Ohio State, but he didn’t walk in with a know-it-all mentality.
“I just want it to be right. I’m not trying to do something that we did in 1998 with the Steelers, I want to do things that are right and sound,” Vrabel said.
“That’s why I’m asking a ton of questions. I’m wearing those defensive coaches out. I’m wearing coach Fickell out, I’m wearing coach (Jim) Heacock out and coach (Paul) Haynes. I’m up and down these hallways in between the day just asking questions. I see stuff on film and I’m asking questions.”
A lot of people are asking questions after a 4-3 start, but Vrabel hasn’t second-guessed his decision to retire for one minute.
“There’s no place I would rather be than right here,” he said.
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