Tanner McCalister Brings Experience, Familiarity with Jim Knowles’ Defense to Ohio State’s 2022 Secondary

By Dan Hope on January 6, 2022 at 11:05 am
Tanner McCalister
Brett Rojo – USA TODAY Sports

While new Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is just getting to know most of his new players, he knows exactly what he’s getting in the Buckeyes’ newest player.

Knowles coached Tanner McCalister for the last four years as Oklahoma State’s defensive coordinator, and he clearly believes McCalister can help Ohio State’s defense in 2022. If Knowles didn’t, he wouldn’t have reached out to McCalister as soon as McCalister entered the transfer portal on Dec. 22, leading to McCalister’s commitment two weeks later to play his final season of college football at Ohio State.

While the rest of Ohio State’s defensive players will have to get accustomed to playing for Knowles and learn how to play in a new defensive scheme, McCalister already has four years of experience – including two years as a starter – in a Knowles-led defense, which could give him a leg up on his teammates going into spring practices even though he’ll be playing at a new school.

“Knowing what you’re doing on the field is one of the most important things to help you play fast,” McCalister told Eleven Warriors on Wednesday. “I obviously know Coach Knowles’ defense, so that’s gonna allow me to go out there and play fast from day one, so hopefully I can get in there with the guys and be a team player and help everybody out as well and earn myself a spot on the starting lineup.”

If McCalister isn’t a starter in Ohio State’s 2022 secondary, or at the very least a regular and substantial contributor in the Buckeyes’ defensive backfield, that would qualify as a surprise. The Buckeyes wouldn’t be bringing him in if they didn’t believe he could be an immediate upgrade for the back end of their defense.

Given that McCalister has only one remaining year of collegiate eligibility, the decision to bring him in via the transfer portal is akin to Ohio State bringing in Jonah Jackson in 2019 and Trey Sermon in 2020. While Ohio State’s first transfer addition this offseason, DeaMonte Trayanum, is probably more likely to make a big impact in 2023 or 2024 than in 2022 – considering that he is converting from running back to linebacker – McCalister will be expected to take on a big role right away.

Most likely, that will mean starting at cover safety, or whatever the equivalent of that position ends up being in Knowles’ Ohio State defense. In Knowles’ Oklahoma State defense, McCalister lined up everywhere from inside the box to deep safety but played more than half of his snaps over the past two seasons in the slot – 708 of 1343 snaps, per Pro Football Focus – and he believes covering slot receivers is what he does best.

McCalister, who started all 14 games for an Oklahoma State defense that finished the season ranked fourth in the nation in yards allowed per game (297.9) and ninth in points allowed per game (18.1) in 2021, was a steady presence in coverage for the Cowboys, allowing 23 receptions for 224 yards and four touchdowns with one interception and six pass breakups on 46 targets during his final season in Stillwater, according to PFF.

Built more like a traditional slot cornerback than a safety at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, McCalister isn’t the thumper that Lathan Ransom is. He can get beat to the ball by tight ends and bigger receivers even when he’s well-positioned in coverage due to his limited size, so there may be situations where the Buckeyes want to have a bigger safety on the field over McCalister.

But he is still a solid run defender who’s racked up 124 tackles over the course of his Oklahoma State career, and he was more consistent in coverage this past season than Ransom, who is Ohio State’s top returning safety with experience playing in the slot following Marcus Williamson’s exit from the program.

Ransom is still likely to have a role within Ohio State’s 2022 defense if he is healthy, but he is expected to miss all of spring practice after fracturing his leg in the Rose Bowl. That will give him ground to make up in preseason camp as the Buckeyes learn how to play in Knowles’ defensive scheme, which is more complex than the scheme Ohio State has run for the past few years. Cameron Martinez will also be in the mix for snaps after playing both cover safety and free safety in 2021, but he’s still relatively inexperienced with just 197 defensive snaps under his belt.

In McCalister, Ohio State gets a player who is already intimately familiar with how Knowles runs a defense and has proven he can be a successful cog in a Knowles-coached defense that was one of the best in the country. And the trust he’s already built up over four years with Knowles, who Ryan Day has said will be the “head coach” of the defense, will surely go a long way toward McCalister playing a big role on Knowles’ first Ohio State defense.

An added bonus: McCalister already gained experience playing against Ohio State’s first opponent of the 2022 season, Notre Dame, in Oklahoma State’s Fiesta Bowl win over the Fighting Irish on Saturday.

“That’ll be a team I’ve faced before,” McCalister said. “So I think going into that game, obviously have to prepare like it’s a brand new game, but I’ve played those guys and I kind of know what to expect. Things can change from year to year, with their new coaching staff, so we’ll see what they look like. I can’t really say that they’re going to do the same things they did against Oklahoma State, but I’ll be excited to watch their film when the time comes around.”

McCalister helps shore up a position that would have been a question mark in a 2022 Ohio State secondary that otherwise looks strong with Denzel Burke and Cameron Brown returning at cornerback, Ronnie Hickman returning at bullet and Josh Proctor coming back from injury at free safety, with Kourt Williams and Bryson Shaw also in the mix. Add Ransom, Martinez and Marcus Hooker to McCalister, Proctor, Hickman, Shaw and Williams, and Ohio State now has eight safeties (barring transfers) who are in at least their third year of college football – not to mention a group of young safeties that will include five-star freshman Sonny Styles come summertime.

Potential 2022 Ohio State Secondary Depth Chart
Position First Team Second Team Third Team Fourth Team

Regardless of how all the pieces might fit together, McCalister could also play a key role in helping the rest of Ohio State’s defenders learn how to play in Knowles’ system, and that’s something he says he’s more than willing to do as he wants to help the Buckeyes get back to playing championship-caliber defense.

“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,” McCalister said. “I’m a guy that just wants to try to help his team win national championships.”

McCalister may not be as flashy an addition as former LSU five-star cornerback Eli Ricks (who transferred to Alabama after Ohio State backed off of recruiting him) would have been, but his history of success with Knowles is reason enough to believe he can be a significant asset to Ohio State’s 2022 defense. And Knowles’ firsthand knowledge of what McCalister will bring to the program both on and off the field likely went a long way in the Buckeyes deciding they should bring him to Columbus over other transfer defensive backs they could have targeted.

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