COLUMBUS — Ohio State head coach Ryan Day turned some heads in Indianapolis two weeks ago when he laid out the expectation of having a top-10 defense this upcoming season. If it’s up to his defensive coordinator, however, a top-10 unit isn’t quite aggressive enough of an expectation.
“I wish he would’ve said top-five because that’s what we expect,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said on Tuesday when asked about Day’s comments. “We talk about having a silver bullet defense to mirror the traditions that have been around here. I tell the guys that means top-five, and that’s what we’re pressing for.”
Just five practices into fall camp, Knowles still has plenty of work cut out for him as he attempts to get his players up to speed on an entirely new scheme that features a 4-2-5 base. He estimated about 25% of the defense had been installed by the end of Tuesday’s practice, adding, however, that the number “increases exponentially” with every passing day.
“I don’t want to feel good right now,” Knowles said of his thoughts on their development. “I mean, I see a lot of promising things, but it’s my job at this time to really keep the pressure on, keep the pedal to the metal … The players should feel good. I point things out to them that we’re doing well, we talk about getting better every day, and I point things out to them that we have to get better at. It’s constant growth.”
If the defense is going to approach the level of expectation that has been laid in front of it this preseason, that success figures to begin up front with the defensive line. Ohio State returns a wealth of experience, both in the interior and on the edge, and the sophomores who saw the field at times a season ago could very well end up being the best of the bunch by season’s end.
“A lot of depth, a lot of guys coming off the ball,” Knowles said of his defensive linemen. “When we unleash them, and we’re going to find ways to unleash them, they get after the quarterback. They get after it in the run game.”
At linebacker, Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers figure to fill out the defensive front for Knowles. Both returning starters from a year ago, Knowles said the two are “solidifying things” in the middle of the defense and called Eichenberg the “silent leader” of the group. He added that Chambers, with a full offseason of development at the position after switching from running back, plays with more confidence than any other linebacker on the team.
Fifth-year senior Teradja Mitchell and third-year veteran Cody Simon should be firmly in the mix for playing time as part of the two-deep after combining for 18 starts a year ago, but the remaining depth remains a question mark with true freshman C.J. Hicks and Arizona State transfer and converted running back Chip Trayanum trying to get up to speed.
Knowles also noted that Palaie Gaoteote has “floated around” throughout practice to get experience at all the linebacker positions. “I feel like we have the potential there for depth, but it’s still developing,” he said.
If there is one particular concern developing for Knowles this summer, it could be the depth — or lack thereof — at cornerback. On Tuesday, Knowles said safeties Cameron Martinez and Jantzen Dunn have “dual-trained” at cornerback as a result of the Buckeyes being “banged up” at the position.
Jordan Hancock, a rising talent who figures to be first in line for playing time behind Cam Brown or Denzel Burke, has been one of those affected by injuries this summer. Asked if Hancock’s injury is a long-term concern, Knowles said such speculation is “above my paygrade.”
“I think it’s long-term,” Knowles said of the depth concerns at cornerback. “I think we’re going to have to keep those guys fresh. There are six scholarship guys, I believe. So we’re going to have to dual-train guys because you get corners who run all the time, back and forth, and you’re going to get the soft tissue injuries and we need to be fresh. It is definitely something that we are keeping our eye on and making sure we’re getting multiple guys repetitions.”
There will be no shortage of players in the mix for playing time at safety for Knowles. With Josh Proctor and Lathan Ransom both returning from devastating leg injuries suffered last season, and Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCallister making the move to Columbus with Knowles, Ohio State should have plenty of experience to lean on this season. For a defensive system that is heavily predicated on the play of safeties, that bodes well for Knowles.
“When you adjust to the college game and how spread out everything is and all of the speed that’s on the field, you need to be multiple in your looks, disguises, coverages, and where safeties fit in the run game,” Knowles said of his safeties. “In order to do that, you need a bunch of fast, athletic guys out there who are also willing to hit and be physical. That’s why I think the development of the safety position within the scheme is so critical.”