Three months before Dec. 7, it was clear that staff turnover – at least at one key coaching position – was inevitable for Ohio State.
But that doesn’t change the fact that just eight days before the early signing period, a Buckeye recruiting class top-heavy with four- and five-star defenders learned that the defensive coordinator in Columbus would be a brand new one come 2022.
Save for four-star cornerback Terrance Brooks (who flipped to Texas on signing day) and top-100 linebacker prospect Gabe Powers (scheduled to sign on Friday), every Ohio State commit in the 2022 class signed their National Letter of Intent even with the uncertainty that remains with the rest of the defensive coaching staff after the hiring of Jim Knowles as defensive coordinator.
Despite bringing in a coordinator with a complex defensive scheme, quirky personality and no previous Big Ten experience, Ryan Day said Wednesday that changes won’t be wholesale with the addition of Knowles, and that goes for both the kind of defensive players Ohio State is recruiting and the general defensive structure.
“Jim will have his own flavor to things and what he sees in talent and those type of things, but schematically we’re looking for the same type of players,” said Day, when asked if Knowles’ system would change Ohio State’s outlook on evaluating defensive talent. “Jim certainly didn’t have an opportunity to recruit through a whole calendar year with this class right here. But in terms of the four down (linemen) and two linebackers, and having that kind of outside guy who can play nickel or bringing in a bigger guy against bigger personnel, and then four DBs in the game. So kind of a 4-2-5, like we’ve been working towards.”
Knowles, the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State since 2018, does not officially start with the Buckeyes until Jan. 2, the day after Ohio State plays Utah in the Rose Bowl. Knowles will not coach for the Cowboys in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, but he won’t be coaching for the Buckeyes before their final game of the season either.
“We’re gonna kind of start fresh on (Jan. 2),” Day said. “He is gonna come for a couple days and just kind of get a lay of the land, meet with a few folks. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do to have him at a practice. I just think that our staff is intact right now and we’re gonna do a great job playing in the Rose Bowl. But get him here for a couple days, just kind of get the lay of the land, and then we’ll start fresh on the 2nd.”
Several current Buckeye defenders said they hadn’t had any contact with Knowles before Thursday. Given that Ohio State’s defensive coaching staff remains intact to this point even after the Knowles hire, the presence of a new coordinator could create something of a distraction from the task at hand.
“Now’s not really the time to get into all that, because we want to do a great job with the bowl game,” Day said. “He and I have talked about that we are gonna visit in the next couple weeks, and then obviously right after the Rose Bowl and kind of figure out what this is gonna look like on the defensive side. But right now, for our guys, the focus needs to be on having a great month of practice here. We only have two-and-a-half weeks before we play in this game and playing really well against Utah.”
However, Ohio State linebacker Steele Chambers said the defense was scheduled to have its first meeting with Knowles via Zoom after interviews with the media on Thursday. Knowles may have just formally met the current Buckeye defense a day ago, but Day said his new defensive coordinator had already spoken with several 2022 recruits in the week between his hire and signing day.
“Jim spoke with a bunch of them, and anybody who had any questions, he was there for them,” Day said. “The structure of what we’re gonna do isn’t gonna make a huge difference, but also a lot of those guys, we encouraged them to watch the film at Oklahoma State and see how they’re doing things and ask questions. But we’re gonna do the best we can to keep the coaching staff that’s in place there now the same, but we’re gonna have discussions and figure out what’s the best moving forward. And that’s just kind of how we did it through the process.
“I think at the end of the day, the recruits understood that they want to come to Ohio State and be part of this culture, and so I think that the conversations were really good, and the guys who spoke with Jim were really excited.”
One thing that could change, Day said, is the number of roster slots they Buckeyes aim to fill at each position defensively. Day said he will collaborate with the longtime coaching veteran in the coming week to take inventory of the numbers on the Ohio State roster.
“Over the next week, I was gonna sit down with Jim and figure out what he worked when he was at Oklahoma State,” Day said. “In the past, we had been at four bullets, seven safeties and I believe eight linebackers – seven or eight linebackers. And that changed when we kind of made the 4-2-5 change, and I’ll sit down with him and figure out if he wants to maybe move a couple of those numbers here or there.”
Given the intricacies of Knowles’ defensive system at Oklahoma State, it’s likely that plenty of minutiae on the Ohio State defense will change next season, even if Day isn’t willing to dive into any of that just yet.
What is evident, though – and especially considering his $1.9 million annual salary – is Day and the Buckeyes are impressed with the track record Knowles will bring to Columbus come the start of the new year.
“When you’re coming in to be the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, you have to check all the boxes. It’s not just one,” Day said. “But I think his past and what he’s done, when you watch the guys who have played for him, what they’ve done schematically, how they speak of him, former coaches that have worked with him, that he’s worked for – you add up all those things and you look at the production, it all speaks for itself.”