A few weeks into his first spring camp at Ohio State, Tanner McCalister experienced some mild apprehension.
Not with the new program, for which he left Oklahoma State alongside Jim Knowles to play his final year of college football in 2022, but with the rate at which his longtime defensive coordinator was dumping information on the Buckeyes’ defensive personnel. A liaison between his new Ohio State teammates and their new coach, McCalister raised the concern with Knowles more than once.
“It’s definitely been accelerated. I want to say the first two or three weeks of spring, I mean he was putting in a lot of plays,” McCalister said in an interview session after practice last week. “I kind of told him a few times, I was like, ‘Hey Coach, you’re putting in a lot.’ He was like, ‘Nah, I want to get it in, I know they’re gonna mess up but I just want to get it in so the guys get a feel for it.’”
Now at the tail end of camp, with the spring game just a few days away in Columbus, McCalister doesn’t sound quite so concerned. The veteran safety said the Ohio State defense has picked things up quickly in recent weeks, and he doesn’t think he’s the only one that feels that way.
The level of urgency for a one-year turnaround wasn’t quite the same for Knowles at Oklahoma State, and that has impacted the manner in which he’s gone about implementing his complex scheme in Columbus. But McCalister said Ohio State has acclimated in a hurry, which is a promising sign given that the start of the season is still five months away.
“The guys have handled it really well. All the coaches would tell you the same thing. Everybody’s handled how much he’s thrown at them really well,” McCalister said. “Everybody’s adjusting pretty fast. It’s definitely different from my previous school. He’s put in almost the whole playbook just in the spring, which is good, because now everybody can see this is what the defense is gonna look like. That’s exciting that everybody’s really picking it up and you’re not just seeing guys lost out there. Guys look like they know what they’re doing, which is really good. I’m excited.”
While McCalister said all three levels of the Buckeye defense have done a good job adapting to the information load, he feels most partial to his own unit under secondary coaches Tim Walton and Perry Eliano. McCalister raved about several of his fellow safeties last week and said some of the veteran defensive backs on the roster haven’t had too difficult a time conforming to Knowles’ new system.
“I would say pretty much the whole BIA, the back end (has learned quickly) honestly, I’m not gonna lie,” McCalister said. “(Ronnie Hickman), he’s picking it up as well, he’s playing kind of the middle position right now. Kourt (Williams), I think his hamstring is injured a little bit – but it’s not bad – but he’s picking it up as well. And now we got (Josh Proctor) back in the mix so that’s exciting, I know you guys are excited about that. He’s picking it up as well.
“You got some veteran guys like Cam Brown, he’s a vet at corner. It hasn’t been too bad of an adjustment for them. Honestly the whole back end’s picking it up.”
When Buckeye defenders are dealing with uncertainty, they don’t just have to go to Knowles for help. Ohio State’s defensive coordinator has made it clear that bringing McCalister with him from Stillwater was in part because of his pupil’s ability to relay certain messages to players that weren’t as familiar with the enigmatic coach upon his arrival in Columbus.
McCalister hasn’t shied away from that role one bit since showing up at Ohio State, and is only settling into it more and more as the offseason rolls along.
“It’s kind of an obvious thing. Coming in, the guys know I played with Coach Knowles, so when they have questions they don’t want to ask Coach, they definitely come to me and I answer the question,” McCalister said. “I’m here to help, obviously. So I kind of just fell into that role, not really being handed the role, I just kind of fell into – they know I was with Coach Knowles, so when they got a question, they ask Tanner. That’s kind of the position I’ve been put in. But I’m enjoying it, and like I said, guys are picking up the defense really fast, and that’s exciting to see.”
Beyond McCalister, there are still several other assistants that Ohio State players can turn to for additional information about Knowles’ system. In bringing along support staffers like Koy McFarland and Matt Guerrieri from previous stops, Knowles has allowed for the defensive coaching staff to have a heightened level of familiarity with the scheme being implemented.
That, in turn, only aids the transition for the player.
“Honestly I think the coaches are doing a really good job. Coach Knowles, he’s brought in guys that used to coach under him as well, guys from Duke and even guys from Oklahoma State,” McCalister said. “So I think having other coaches that have been in his defense as well, and then having me as a player being in his defense as well, everybody’s really in every room getting a taste of somebody that’s done it before, somebody that’s been in it before. So I think that’s helped a lot.
“In our individual meetings, guys are really getting to see firsthand, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do, this is how the defense looks.’ Having those different coaches in each room and then me as a player being out there with them, I think it’s been a pretty easy transition.”
That talk may sound good to Buckeye fans, but Ohio State still has to put it on the field before it can be trusted in total. The first such test takes place Saturday, as Knowles’ scarlet and gray defense will make its debut inside Ohio Stadium at Ohio State’s annual spring game before taking the field for its first actual game against Notre Dame on Sept. 3.
“The transition has been really smooth, and I think the defense and everybody in the defense has picked it up really fast,” McCalister said. “I’m excited to see what we do in the fall.”