Before Ohio State‘s spring football game in mid-April, first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles took a walk around the field to soak in the atmosphere of his first time inside Ohio Stadium. As he made his way throughout the Shoe, where there was an announced crowd of 60,000 for a glorified scrimmage, Knowles said he heard fans yelling to him, “We love you, Knowles! You’re the best!”
“The thought crossed my mind — we haven’t even given up a first down yet, or a point,” he said with a chuckle. “But then I made a conscious decision: You know what? I’m going to enjoy this.”
He raised a fist in the air, a triumphant gesture back at the Buckeyes fans.
“I was like, ‘That’s right, let’s go!’” he said, “knowing full well that we haven’t done anything yet.”
All eyes are on Knowles to see what he does do this fall — and if it will be enough to get the Buckeyes back to the College Football Playoff.
Following four seasons at Oklahoma State, where he elevated the Cowboys’ defense to a level of success not typically seen in the pass-happy Big 12, Knowles’ reputation precedes him. With an offense that is again projected to be the best in the country, defensive improvement could be the missing piece to the Buckeyes’ national title aspirations.
Knowles, 57, is entering his 35th season in collegiate coaching, including 15 as a defensive coordinator and six as head coach at Cornell. It’s his first time, though, coaching at a program where the expectations aren’t just to get to the playoff — they’re to win it.
“The outside noise is something as a coach you can’t pay much attention to, because sometimes it’s going to be great, you’re the king of the world, and the next day you’re the worst coach ever,” he said. “You have to stay focused, but I get it.”
Ohio State has been to a semifinal in four of the past eight seasons in the CFP era. After back-to-back appearances in 2019 and 2020, Ohio State finished No. 6 in the selection committee’s final ranking last fall after regular-season losses to Oregon and rival Michigan — two opponents that finished in the top 15, including the No. 2 Wolverines. It was hardly a disaster, as the Buckeyes punctuated their season with a thrilling 48-45 win over Pac-12 champion Utah in the Rose Bowl.
Offense wasn’t the problem.
Following the Week 2 loss to Oregon, coach Ryan Day stripped former defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs of his playcalling responsibilities. While Coombs was well liked within the program, the on-field results weren’t as favorable. In the first two games alone last season, Ohio State’s defense was gashed for a combined 324 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns — and that was only from two running backs, Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim and Oregon’s CJ Verdell.
The dagger, though, was Ohio State’s 42-27 loss to their loathsome rival, Michigan. The Wolverines ran for 297 yards, their most in The Game since 1995. The loss prevented Ohio State from reaching the playoff for a third straight season and winning the Big Ten for a fifth straight year.
Knowles said he has barely watched any of last year’s defense, and doesn’t want to.
“I think you get preconceived notions,” said Knowles, who is the third defensive coordinator Day has hired since he took over the program from Urban Meyer in 2019. “You get these ideas and opinions even if you don’t want to. You don’t know what the players were taught and you don’t want to blame it on the past coaches. When you’re not there, when you’re not inside that submarine, it’s hard. So I don’t like to watch a lot, and I didn’t do it at Oklahoma State and I didn’t do it at Duke (where he was an assistant from 2010 to 2017). I want to be able to see the guys firsthand and close up and what they’re all about.”
He’s already extremely familiar with one of them.
Safety Tanner McCalister played for Knowles for four seasons at Oklahoma State, where he earned a degree in finance, and started 23 games for the Cowboys over the past two seasons. He racked up 123 career tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 12 passes defended in 41 games. Following Oklahoma State’s loss to Baylor in the Big 12 championship game, McCalister decided to forgo the NFL draft and return to college for his final season of eligibility, but his defensive coordinator was leaving.
McCalister entered the transfer portal.
“Coach Knowles was one of the first to call,” he said. “As soon as I saw his name, I picked up the phone and we were both just laughing, to be honest. I told him where my head was at, what I was thinking. He understood where I was coming from. He told me, obviously, ‘I want you to be here. I want you to still play under me. I want you to help me teach the defense, but also bring your talent to Ohio State as well.’”
McCalister called it a “no-brainer.” He met Day the following day, prepared to play Notre Dame in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, and moved to Columbus on Jan. 10. The transition was quick, easy — and extremely helpful to the rest of the defense.
“I was glad Coach Day was able to bring him along with coach Knowles, because coaches have their way of coaching, but it’s a lot different coming from the guy right next to you on the field who’s literally going through the same things you’re going through,” said safety Ronnie Hickman. “So anytime you can get information from people who are out on the field with you, it always helps, and Tanner’s one of the smarter guys that I’ve been around.
“The guy knows all the positions on defense,” Hickman said. “I literally remember a couple of the first few installs, we were running all these plays, and I’m like, ‘Teammate, what I got?’ and he’s right there with the answer. Just knowing he’s locked in with all of this stuff and I can go to him.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, two of the most telling statistics about Ohio State’s defense last year compared to seasons it made the CFP were its third-down conversion rate and red zone efficiency. Ohio State allowed a touchdown on nearly 74% of its opponents’ red zone drives last season — only Kansas, Missouri and Arizona were worse.
Ohio State’s defense also struggled to get off the field (No. 44 in the country in opponents’ time of possession), and making stops on third down were a glaring issue. The Buckeyes allowed their opponents to convert on third down 41.8% of the time — only Northwestern was worse among Big Ten teams. It’s a stark difference from when Ohio State made the playoff in 2019 (No. 3), 2016 (No. 9) and 2014 (No. 11) among Power 5 conferences.
“We were put in a lot of tough situations,” Hickman said. “If I could go back and do some things different, I would. I know all 10 other guys on the field would, and I’m sure a lot of people on the staff would.
“… We feel everything that everyone’s been saying after this season,” he said. “That stuff hasn’t left our minds at all. We still got that taste in our mouth from last year, and we’re hungry. … We don’t like to hide from it or run from it. If anything, we use it.”
Knowles’ 2021 defense at Oklahoma State allowed 4.3 yards per play, the lowest single regular-season average by a Big 12 team since 2009 (Knowles did not coach in the Fiesta Bowl). Knowles’ unit lived in the backfield. In 2021, Oklahoma State recorded sacks on 14% of pass attempts, and in the run game it held opponents to zero or negative rushing yards on 35% of rush attempts — both regular-season bests in the FBS.
Knowles said he was impressed by how quickly Ohio State’s players absorbed the new defense. He attributed their desire to learn to being upset about their performance last season, along with their aspirations to play in the NFL. They aren’t the only ones, though, who will have to make some adjustments.
“I’m going to try to do as much as I can that I did at Oklahoma State,” he said. “To me, it’s always got to be tailored to the conference. I think we’re going to get more 12 personnel, more two tight ends, that kind of thing, so I think there will have to be some adjustments in the system based on more multiple tight end sets, which I had always been prepared for in the Big 12, thinking that somebody would do it.”
Knowles said one of the reasons he left Duke for Oklahoma State was because he knew how challenging it would be to coach defense in the Big 12.
“I went to try to grow,” he said. “In order to grow, you’ve got to be willing to change.”
The Buckeyes made the change. They’ll find out Sept. 3 against Notre Dame how much the defense has grown from it.
Source : Sky.com