With spring practice just a month away, newly hired defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has his work cut out for him as he attempts to revitalize an Ohio State defense that was, in the best of times, suspect in 2021.
The headliner in a series of sweeping changes made by head coach Ryan Day to the defensive coaching staff, Knowles met with the media on Monday for the first time since his hire was officially announced on Dec. 7.
Knowles comes to Columbus with more than 30 years of coaching at the college ranks, most recently serving as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. There, Knowles led the gradual turnaround of a defense that had been perennially awful prior to his arrival. The ascension of the Oklahoma State defense culminated with the fifth-ranked unit in total defense last season, and the Cowboys came agonizingly close to earning the school’s first-ever bid to the College Football Playoff.
Predictably, Knowles became a hot commodity last season as his stock continued to rise with the emergence of his defense as one of the better units in the country. Despite having strong relationships with his players at Oklahoma State, the opportunity Day presented to him was ultimately too good to pass on.
“When anyone thinks of the best in college football, they think of Ohio State,” Knowles said on Monday. “That goes for people in the coaching profession, too. You want to be the best, you want to be at the best, you want to compete against the best. You want to be at a place that’s 100% supported by the university and by the community and the alumni, with a rich tradition. When you put all of those things together, it’s Ohio State. For someone who’s worked his way up in the profession, it’s really the culmination of a professional dream to get to Ohio State and to be with the best in the business.”
Although Knowles’ track record in a conference that has often approached playing defense as an optional activity should offer plenty of intrigue to what he might now be able to do in a place with endless resources, he will face a pressure different than anything he’s experienced in his coaching career. The four years of good grace Knowles was allotted to revive the Oklahoma State defense will not be afforded to him at a place that expects to win the national championship every year, and he’s under no illusions that he can ease into the role.
“That’s not lost on me. This is not an entry-level position,” Knowles said of the expectations of the job. “To those that a lot has been given, a lot is expected. I went into Oklahoma State really believing that when we could get the defense to rise to the level and culture of the offense and the things they did off the field and in the weight room, we’d be able to compete for a national championship. At Oklahoma State, we were two feet short this year, but it took four years. It’s not lost on me that I don’t have four years here. This program is ready to win every single game right now, and we have to get the defense to that level right now.”
As for what Buckeye fans can expect from the defense this year, Knowles said he will put an emphasis on confusing opposing coaching staffs, which will in turn foster indecision in offenses. How, exactly, he plans to do that remains to be seen, but Knowles spoke to wanting to create a few simple looks that Ohio State can use to deploy a variety of looks against offenses.
“We want to be able to create indecision for the offense, particularly for the offensive coordinator,” Knowles said. “I think in college, offensive coordinators have even more of a hand on things that happen than in the NFL. We want to be able to create multiple defenses out of simple looks and to be creative in a way that the players can understand … We want to create two to three simple pictures that, when the offensive coordinator looks at it, he can’t tell what’s going to happen from that same picture. And that we have the ability to really do anything out of that same picture or look.”
The work is just beginning for Knowles and the handful of new faces Day has brought in to breathe new life into what had become a stale unit. However, Knowles was complimentary of the coaches that came before him and believes Ohio State is close to returning to a level consistent with the history of the program. “From what I’ve seen, I don’t think we’re far off,” he said.
Of course, how quickly Knowles can get his players on the same page in a brand new scheme will ultimately determine whether or not Ohio State will have a defense capable of complimenting an elite offense this season. Fortunately, Knowles will have the benefit of a familiar face to assist him in installing the schemes in transfer safety Tanner McCalister.
McCalister was a two-year starter under Knowles at Oklahoma State, and his final year of college eligibility will likely be spent serving as a critical component in a secondary badly in need of a boost in production. Perhaps even more importantly, McCalister’s leadership figures to go a long way in smoothing the adjustment his teammates will face.
“He was already a coach on the field, and he’ll be even more so here at Ohio State because he’s been with me, we’ve been through the wars together,” Knowles said. “He understands me. He can talk to the other guys if I get loud. He can talk about my style to them, but he can also explain the defense to them in a way that coaches or someone my age can’t. He has (his teammates) out now, on his own, going through different things and kind of preparing them for what I am going to do. He’ll be invaluable.”