Jim Knowles’ defense is designed to confuse Ohio State’s opponents on the gridiron, but the revamped scheme has plenty of the Buckeyes’ own offensive players scratching their heads this spring.
While the defense Kerry Coombs manned at the start of 2021 drew criticism for its predictability and reactive nature, Knowles is turning those descriptors on their heads as he installs his own system in Columbus, and it seems to be having the desired effect on the other side of the ball. Multiple Buckeye quarterbacks, including returning Heisman finalist C.J. Stroud, have noted the complexity of Knowles’ scheme, which – if implemented and executed properly – could be the key to national championship contention in 2022.
“They do a lot of different things,” Stroud said. “They have different ways to get to different coverages, which is really good for my eyes to see. Not just seeing Cover 1, Cover 3 or just base coverage every day. I really appreciate Coach Knowles bringing that swagger to the defense, it's really going to help our offense.”
Knowles, whose Oklahoma State defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in total, scoring and rushing defense a year ago, detailed the mission statement for his scheme upon arrival in Columbus. Creating confusion and disguising true intentions are crucial for the success of his defense, and Knowles has gotten to experiment with doing exactly that against one of the nation’s top offenses over the past several weeks.
“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 at his introductory press conference in February. “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.”
For a first-year quarterback like Devin Brown, the transition from high school to college has been made no easier by the multitude of looks he’s been presented by Knowles and the new-look Buckeye defense. Brown said he realized just how big a step up he was taking in level of play once Knowles began throwing different blitz looks at him in the pocket, which he said has been “way different than anything I’ve ever seen before.”
“With our defense and what Coach Knowles does, you never know what you’re gonna get. … All the sudden you get three guys up the A gap and you didn’t even see it coming in the first place,” Brown said.
But it isn’t just the offensive players that are dealing with concepts they might not have seen before. Knowles’ goal is to confuse the opposing coaches on offense with his scheme, and Brown said he’s seen plenty of that this spring outside of what has thrown him off individually once the ball is snapped.
“Even on the offensive side, like we haven’t ever seen a defense like this, really. So it’s a learning curve for the coaches, too,” Brown said. “So being able to learn from them and adjust really fast, because we never know what the defense is gonna give us, so just being able to react to that.”
In Knowles’ linebacker room, the players lining up across the line of scrimmage from Stroud, Brown and Kyle McCord have detected the confusion the new scheme is causing, and Steele Chambers said it’s a marked difference from last year.
“Yes, absolutely,” Chambers said when asked if the Buckeye offense seems more confused than it did in 2021. “Yeah, they look a little more confused because we're just bringing a whole bunch of new shit, and I don't blame them. Because, I mean, it's confusing for us so it's definitely confusing for them.”
While Knowles and company are making every effort to overwhelm the minds of the Buckeye offense in spring training, the new Ohio State defensive coordinator also knows there’s a fine line in overloading his defensive pupils with information that could slow them down once the ball is snapped.
Knowles wants to install as much of his scheme as possible in the spring for the sake of getting it all on tape for the Buckeyes to watch back, but the complexities may keep that from being a realistic goal until September comes into clearer view.
“You just gotta look in their eyes, because we’ll go in one day and we’ll download nine defenses in our Jet package, which is what we’re calling for the Jack,” Knowles said on March 29. “You run around and you do it against just trash cans, and then you do it against the offense. And then I just run around like crazy saying, ‘Go here, go there.’ And then they’re fine, and then you kind of see their eyes glaze over, and then you know, OK, it’s time just to call base. ‘Give me a period of just base four-down,’ and then you kind of back off.”
Despite the information they’re being inundated with early in the offseason, Chambers said the Buckeye defenders – and the linebackers in particular – are having no shortage of fun on the field while learning their new responsibilities.
“I’m really excited, me and Tommy (Eichenberg) talk about it every day,” Chambers said. “This brand new defense, I guess it’s because it’s new, but just the freshness of it, it just really feels like a deep breath of air. It’s just fun to do something new, just getting to do new jobs and stuff, just run around, have fun.”
The Buckeye offense might not be having quite as much fun trying to diagnose exactly what’s going on with Knowles’ new scheme on a snap-to-snap basis, but like Stroud said earlier this week, the new looks should only help Ohio State’s offense become acclimated to a wider variety of defenses it could face once the season begins.