Jim Knowles Says First Spring At Ohio State Went “As Good or Better” Than Expected For the Buckeye Defense

By Griffin Strom on April 19, 2022 at 8:35 am
Jim Knowles

Now a full spring camp into Jim Knowles’ tenure at Ohio State, the Buckeye defense may actually be ahead of schedule as it continues to build toward a dramatic one-year turnaround this offseason.

Both Knowles and Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said what the defense showed in Saturday’s spring game was just the tip of the iceberg relative to what the former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator has in store for the 2022 season. After the exhibition, Knowles went as far as to say the Buckeyes “didn’t do anything, really” in the spring game – schematically, anyway. But even in the lead-up to the intrasquad scrimmage, Knowles already held a firm belief Ohio State is well on its way to meeting its lofty goals come fall.

Knowles said the Buckeyes might even be further along than he expected them to be just over three months into his new post as “head coach of the defense” in Columbus.

“Going into the game I felt great about how far we had come, what we accomplished, how much we got installed, how the players took to it,” Knowles said in his post-spring game press conference appearance. “It was as good or better than I could have wished.”

In his last meeting with members of the media prior to the spring game, Knowles said March 29 that the Buckeye defensive line was the area of the defense that had impressed him most beyond his presumptions upon taking over the reins for Kerry Coombs and company.

On Saturday, Knowles had plenty of praise for the back end as well, even if the Buckeyes’ pass coverage isn’t yet in midseason form following some modifications to Ohio State’s fundamental approach at the defensive back positions.

“I was very pleased. We’re continuing to work on playing close to people, throwing punches, being aggressive with our coverage,” Knowles said about Ohio State’s cornerback play in the spring game. “And that may be a little bit of a change for them, and they’re adapting to it. We’re going against the best receiving corps in the country so I think it’s gonna continue to be a reason for them to get better because of who they see every day in practice. And we’re gonna continue coaching aggressive coverage.”

The Buckeye secondary finished with 10 pass breakups in Saturday’s scrimmage, holding C.J. Stroud well under his 2021 completion rate of 71.9 percent while Devin Brown completed just 46 percent of his own attempts. Denzel Burke, Kye Stokes and Jordan Hancock all impressed with two PBUs apiece, and the strong play of the latter two was a particularly promising sign for the depth of the defensive backfield.

At linebacker, Tommy Eichenberg showed why his name has been at the tip of the tongue of many of his coaches and teammates over the past several weeks, finishing with a game-high 10 tackles to follow up his standout 17-tackle effort in January’s Rose Bowl.

There may still be work to do before the rotation in the middle of Ohio State’s defense is fully ironed out, as Steele Chambers, Cody Simon, Teradja Mitchell and Chip Trayanum will all make a push for maximum playing time at the two inside linebacker positions in Knowles’ own room.

Up front might have been where the Buckeye defense shined the most in the spring game, as portended by Knowles a few weeks ago, as the defense finished with six sacks – and probably a couple others that should have been called – and 10 tackles for loss. 

Buckeye quarterback C.J. Stroud went as far as to call Ohio State’s defensive line “amazing” after the game, and Knowles had plenty of praise for the group as well in his post-game interview. 

The rotation on Ohio State’s defensive front isn’t exactly set either, with second-year pass rushers Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau challenging veteran defensive ends Zach Harrison and Javontae Jean-Baptiste on the outside while second-year defensive tackles Tyleik Williams and Mike Hall compete with veterans Jerron Cage, Taron Vincent and Ty Hamilton on the inside.

But Knowles isn’t all that concerned about who sits atop the Week 1 depth chart up front.

“I don’t really care who starts, to be honest with you,” Knowles said. “Because we’re gonna play a lot of guys up front and I want them fresh and I want them hungry, and the more the better. And that whole group you mentioned, they could easily be starters. I think they’re that good.”

The largest remaining concern for Knowles lies at safety, where despite his repeated compliments of new free safety Ronnie Hickman and the steady presence of Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCalister at nickel, depth has been a little light with injuries to a number of key performers.

Kourt Williams, who has played Knowles’ bandit safety role this spring, did not play at all in the spring game, while Josh Proctor – who appears to be transitioning from free safety to bandit – did not participate in the tackling portion of the exhibition as he continues to rehab from last year’s season-ending leg fracture.

The talent has always been there for the Buckeyes, even when they haven’t performed up to expectations defensively the past couple seasons. But even more impressive for Knowles, and what he described as the most important takeaway from the spring, is just how quickly his new players have been able to digest the high volume of information he has thrown at them amid the rapid transition.

Knowles might not have dipped all the way into his bag of tricks on Saturday, but he sounded confident in his players’ ability to learn all the complexities of his defense so far, and that’s a process that will only continue as the offseason moves forward in Columbus.

“The biggest revelation of the spring was that regardless of talent, these players that we have, they want to learn. They soaked up everything I did,” Knowles said. “They’re just into it; into football, into us, into culture change and the way we run meetings. They picked it up. I mean, they picked it up at a high speed.”

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