Comfortability in Jim Knowles’ Defense, NFL and National Championship Goals Brought Former Oklahoma State Safety Tanner McCalister to Ohio State

By Dan Hope on January 5, 2022 at 5:19 pm
Tanner McCalister
Brett Rojo – USA TODAY Sports

When Tanner McCalister entered the transfer portal on Dec. 22, he did so with the hope that he’d get the opportunity to play at Ohio State.

It didn’t take long before he got a call from new Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who was previously his defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State for the last four years.

“So entering the portal, obviously I hadn’t had any conversations with Coach Knowles, because I was still a player here at Oklahoma State,” McCalister said. “But as soon as I got in there, I got a call from Coach Knowles and he was basically like, ‘Man, let’s run it back. Let’s come home to Columbus and we can get things going.’”

McCalister had offers from many other schools also come his way over the past two weeks, including offers from numerous SEC schools as well as several other Big Ten schools. He gave those offers serious consideration as well, particularly an offer from LSU, another school with a rich tradition of developing NFL defensive backs. Nonetheless, McCalister ended up making the decision he’d hoped he’d have the opportunity to make all along on Wednesday, when he announced his commitment to transfer to Ohio State.

His comfortability with playing in Knowles’ defense was the biggest reason why McCalister chose to become a Buckeye.

“Obviously transferring to a new school, that’s really stepping outside of your comfort zone, so I feel like at Ohio State, having Coach Knowles there, somebody who has coached me for the past four years, somebody who I feel like as a football player, I’ve developed in his defense and I’ve had some success in his defense and made strides in there. So stepping outside of my comfort zone and entering the transfer portal, I just felt like going to Ohio State, having some type of comfortability aspect of it, made the decision a little easier,” McCalister told Eleven Warriors on Wednesday.

McCalister, who spent four years in Stillwater including two seasons as a starting safety for the Cowboys, said he has nothing but good things to say about his time at Oklahoma State. But after graduating with a degree in finance from Oklahoma State in December, McCalister wanted to see what other opportunities would be available to him in the transfer portal for his final season of college football – a season he has the opportunity to play thanks to the NCAA giving all players a free year of eligibility in 2020.

“For me I felt like, with that last year, I should try to put myself in the best situation I can to achieve my goal, which is to make it to the NFL and obviously win a national championship,” McCalister said. “And just considering all those things, I felt like Ohio State was a great spot for me to be at. So entering the transfer portal, that was kind of a designated spot, and I had plenty of other offers once I got into the portal that I had to consider, just because they were there, but it eventually ended up leading me to Ohio State still. So I’m very comfortable with my decision.”

McCalister is well aware of Ohio State’s pedigree for developing defensive backs like Denzel Ward, Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker who have gone on to be high NFL draft picks. He’s also heard good things about playing at Ohio State from star Buckeye wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who he’s been friends with since they were both kids growing up in Rockwall, Texas.

“Obviously, Jaxon’s having a hell of a young career his first two years there, so I’m really proud of him,” McCalister said. “We’ve talked since he’s been in high school, even when he was going through recruiting and things like that. He’s told me I’m going to love it up there. I’ve never been to Ohio State, never been to Columbus, so he told me I’m going to love it and I’m looking forward to practicing with him every day. Us competing against each other again. Growing up with him, that’s all we really ever did was compete against each other. So it’s gonna be fun to do that. I consider him family. So having family up there really eased my decision as well.”

McCalister also said he’s been talking to Ryan Day every day for the past two weeks, and the Ohio State head coach made a good first impression on McCalister.

“I think he’s a guy that’s about his business,” McCalister said. “To me, he seems like he wants to win, which is obviously what any coach wants to do, but for me being a player, we want to win as well, so that’s important for me. And I think he really cares about his players as well. I told him my goals, he told me some of his goals and I think our goals match up. We both want to win, obviously I want to get to the next level which is any college football player’s dream, but him being an awesome coach and doing what he’s doing at Ohio State really speaks for itself. So he didn’t really have to sell me on anything, because his résumé speaks for itself. But I think he’s a coach that wants to win, I think he’s a coach that cares about his players, so that’s important for me.”

“For me I felt like, with that last year, I should try to put myself in the best situation I can to achieve my goal, which is to make it to the NFL and obviously win a national championship. And just considering all those things, I felt like Ohio State was a great spot for me to be at.”– Tanner McCalister on transferring to Ohio State

McCalister believes he will fit well within Ohio State’s culture, which Day has repeatedly said is an important factor for Ohio State every time it considers bringing in a transfer.

“I think my discipline and my toughness, that’s something being at Oklahoma State, Coach Gundy always preached, being disciplined and tough,” McCalister said. “So I think I’m a pretty disciplined player and I’m gonna be a team player as well. So I’m not coming in to try to steal any shine, I’m just coming in to work and be a team player and contribute to the defense. So that’s my plan, and I think me and Coach Ryan Day having conversations about that, I think he understands that I’m a guy that just wants to try to help his team win national championships.”

Of course, McCalister wants to play a major role for Ohio State’s 2022 defense, and he believes his familiarity playing in a Knowles-coached system will enable him to do that. McCalister played a similar role at Oklahoma State to the cover safety position Ohio State used in 2021, and McCalister anticipates he’ll continue playing that role, which will likely mean playing primarily in the slot but also occasionally dropping back to play deep safety or lining up in the box.

McCalister also knows that he’s still going to have to earn his place in the starting lineup, and he wants to be a team player, so he says he’s willing to line up wherever Knowles and the rest of Ohio State’s coaching staff believe he fits best.

“I have the ability to play in the box as well and play some free safety, but I think Coach Knowles will agree that my strength is covering,” McCalister said. “So I’m sure I’ll be doing the cover safety role up there. But I want to get in and kind of prove myself with the guys, and whatever Coach Knowles sees fit for me, I’m welcome to it and I’m excited to play wherever he feels I can benefit the defense best at.”

McCalister’s trust that Knowles will have his best interest at heart is why he chose to follow Knowles to Ohio State, and he believes the rest of Ohio State’s defensive players will come to love playing for Knowles just as much as he does.

“I think they’re going to love that he’s a players’ coach,” McCalister said. “He’s going to yell at you, he’s going to do everything coaches are supposed to do, but he does it because he wants what’s best for you. I think all the defenders at Ohio State are gonna realize that. Coach Knowles really wants what’s best for the people he’s coaching, and I think that’s why at Oklahoma State we had such a good defense, because Coach Knowles had a group of guys that really wanted to play for him because of the type of guy he is, type of coach he is. 

“His system is great and all that’s good, but there’s a lot of people that have good defensive systems. But if you can get a group of guys together that want to play for you, I think that’s going to take your defense to the next level, and I think that Coach Knowles can bring that to Ohio State.”

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