Tanner McCalister said exactly what many Ohio State fans wanted to hear when he was asked to describe Jim Knowles’ defense during his first interview session as a Buckeye last week.
“It's gonna be aggressive,” McCalister said. “A lot of defenses react to what the offense likes to do. I think Coach Knowles wants them to react to what we like to do.”
For the past two years, when Kerry Coombs and Matt Barnes were calling the Buckeyes’ defensive plays, Ohio State’s defense certainly didn’t dictate what opposing offenses did – at least not in big games. In the Buckeyes’ two losses last season, their defense was clearly outschemed by Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, often beating Ohio State with the same plays multiple times as the Buckeyes proved unable to adjust and make the necessary stops to win the game.
That’s why Ohio State is paying $1.9 million, the highest annual salary the Buckeyes have ever paid an assistant coach, to Knowles this year. Unlike Coombs, Barnes and the rest of last year’s defensive staff, Knowles comes to Ohio State with a proven track record of leading successful defenses, most recently at Oklahoma State.
Oklahoma State finished fifth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards allowed per game (297.9) and ninth in points allowed per game (18.1) in 2021. In three specific areas of emphasis, the Cowboys tied for the national lead in sacks (57) and ranked second nationally in tackles for loss (114) and fourth nationally in opposing third-down conversion percentage (28.8%) – a category in which Oklahoma State had the nation’s best percentage (26.5%) in 2020.
Knowles wants Ohio State to be among the national leaders in those categories, too, because they’re indicators of what he wants his defense to be: Aggressive and attacking.
“You want to have a lot of a lot of things, a lot of pressures differently. We were number one in sacks last year (at Oklahoma State). We've been consistently 1-2 on third down. Those are all big deals for us,” Knowles said last week. “Why? Because it gets the ball back to the offense.”
Based on what has been said about Knowles’ defensive philosophy by both Knowles himself and by McCalister – who knows Knowles’ defense well after playing for him at Oklahoma State for the last four years before following him to Ohio State – Buckeye fans should expect to see a defense that tries to create havoc and disrupt opposing game plans rather than one that sits back on its heels and reacts to what the offense does. The film from Knowles’ most recent defenses at Oklahoma State backs up their words.
New Ohio State linebacker Gabe Powers is among the Buckeye defenders who are excited about playing in that kind of scheme.
“They’re very aggressive. I love how aggressive they are,” Powers said. “He's a very, very aggressive defensive coordinator, so I love that.”
Of course, playing aggressively comes with risk, as it can lead to giving up big plays, especially if there are players on the defense who don’t execute their assignments correctly. That said, Knowles plans to make it a point of emphasis for Ohio State’s defenders to consistently be where they’re supposed to be – so much so that he expects that to be one of the defining attributes of Ohio State’s defense this fall.
“For being tenacious, for overwhelming the offense, for being always in the right place,” Knowles said of what he wants his defense to be known for a year from now. “When you watch it, you can say it’s always in the right place. Not giving up anything easy, and then attacking with tackles for losses and the sacks. And third-down domination.”
“A lot of defenses react to what the offense likes to do. I think Coach Knowles wants them to react to what we like to do.”– Tanner McCalister on Jim Knowles’ defensive scheme
In order for the defense to become what he wants it to be – especially in his first year at Ohio State, with just eight months to work with his new players before the season opener against Notre Dame on Sept. 3 – Knowles must strike the right balance between making the defense complex enough to confuse opponents but also simple enough for the players to have a firm grasp of what they’re supposed to do.
The key to accomplishing that, Knowles believes, will be teaching players how to play various roles without necessarily changing where they’re lining up from play to play.
“We want to be able to create indecision for the offense, and particularly for the offensive coordinator. I think in college, offensive coordinators even have more hand on things that happen than in the NFL, so 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,” Knowles said. “So we want to create two to three simple pictures, that when you look at it, or 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 that look.”
What exactly those pictures will look like probably won’t become entirely clear until the season is underway – considering he wants to confuse opposing coordinators, Knowles isn’t going to want to give away any secrets about his defense before he has to – though he is expected to maintain a similar defensive scheme to that which he used at Oklahoma State, where his base defense consisted of two defensive tackles, one traditional defensive end, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end, two traditional linebackers, two cornerbacks and three safeties.
Still, McCalister says Ohio State fans should expect to see a variety of different defensive looks that give a multitude of defensive players opportunities to play.
“He likes guys that can do different things, because the offense is gonna try to throw different looks at you, so we've got to be able to throw different looks at them, as well,” said McCalister, who played the nickel safety position for Knowles at Oklahoma State. “So Coach Knowles did a really good job in diversifying his defense. We have different packages where you may bring in an extra linebacker, I may come out … or you bring an extra DB and one of the linemen comes out and now you’re playing with six DBs. So he has a lot of different packages for a lot of different looks and I think you guys are gonna see that and a lot of guys are gonna get to play.”
The biggest thing McCalister expects to remain a hallmark of Knowles’ defense at Ohio State, though, is that the Buckeyes will make life difficult on their opponents by going after them rather than playing passively.
“We're gonna get in their face. We're gonna send pressure. We're gonna have fun in the back end,” McCalister said. “He just likes to cause confusion and he does a good job with that, causing confusion for the quarterback. So I think you guys are just gonna see an aggressive defense. So I'm looking forward to that.”