Four months into his Ohio State tenure, Jim Knowles believes the Buckeyes’ defensive turnaround is ahead of schedule.
Going into the spring, Knowles wasn’t sure how much his new players would be able to pick up in just 15 practices. While he wanted to get as many new defensive concepts on film as possible so that coaches and players could evaluate that film over the summer, he still estimated in March that he would only be able to install about two-thirds of his scheme by the end of spring.
As he looked back on the spring at a media availability earlier this month, however, Knowles said the defensive installation is already further along than he thought it would be.
“Yeah, I think we got accomplished more than I could have hoped for,” Knowles said on May 6. “I think our players were very open to the process, very eager to learn, and they pick things up at a rapid pace. I was really impressed with the guys we have and their football intelligence.”
Knowles said he started the process of teaching the players his defensive scheme slowly, wanting to ensure he went at the pace of his students. But he quickly found they had the capacity to learn a lot in a short amount of time.
“They overall as a group, and I'm sure it's a function of the culture that coach Day has built, they have a football intelligence. So when they have a football intelligence about them, and they're interested in learning and they have open minds, then you just start to pick it up,” Knowles said. “You start to pick it up, and the more they're handling, the more you give them. So you have to go at the speed of the players, and I thought we had a bunch of guys who learned at a rapid pace.”
Knowles’ defense is often regarded as complex, and his defenses at previous stops have typically been much better after three or four years than they’ve been in year one and two. But Knowles has more talent to work with at Ohio State than he’s ever had before, and he thinks his new players are finding the defensive concepts aren’t as complicated as they might appear.
“They were able to learn that we do a lot of things that it's simple, but yet it looks complex. And I think they were able to get into the heart of it and get excited about it and say ‘OK, we can show a lot of different looks,’ but it was easy for them to learn,” Knowles said. “It can be overwhelming in the beginning, because it looks like a lot, but when you get into the nuts and bolts of it, they were able to follow along at a rapid pace. And that's a credit to our players, too. I mean, they soaked it up and they really wanted to learn and I think now they got a taste of how good the system can work.”
Still, the process of preparing for Knowles’ first season as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator is far from over. There’s still a lot the Buckeyes need to accomplish over the next four months to be ready to go when they play their first game against Notre Dame on Sept. 3. And considering Notre Dame is expected to enter the season as a top-10 team, there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that.
That said, Knowles doesn’t want his players to be nervous, and he doesn’t think they are. Instead, he wants them to trust the process and in each other, and he thinks they do.
“I don't think the players feel any pressure in that because they believe and they're confident and they've seen how the whole system works and the quality of our program,” Knowles said. “The challenge for us is just to be the best that we can be. I mean, that's all. If we're the best we can be, we'll be fine.”
Ohio State’s defensive players who met with the media this spring consistently expressed confidence in what Knowles is teaching them and how they and their teammates are picking it up.
“I have all the confidence in the world in his scheme,” linebacker Steele Chambers said. “I mean, he's a hard ass, he'll scream at you but I know what he's doing for this program is pretty awesome.”
Of course, it’s easy to be confident before the season actually starts – coaches and players expressed plenty of confidence in Ohio State’s defense going into last season, too, and we know how that turned out – so Knowles knows there’s no way of truly knowing how good the Buckeyes’ defense can be this year before they take the field against the Fighting Irish.
“You probably learn as much in that game as you learn the entire spring, right? Because you go through the spring and fall camp and you learn a ton about your players. And what they can do, can't do. But you never really know until you test it out,” Knowles said. “That's the exam that we have every week, and then you learn a ton from that and you grow from there from that point. But until you actually see it in action and your guys on the field against an opponent, you cannot really – that's like don't talk about the defense until you look back at it at the end of the season. And then you can say, ‘OK,’ because that's real. That's on film. That's what you did. So it's all about production. You learn so much from a game, you really do.”
Knowles knows what an elite defense looks like, having coached a top-10 defense at Oklahoma State last year, and he saw the ingredients of that starting to come together during the spring. But he also says that has to be evaluated on a day-to-day basis.
“You have to go back and look at the video every day. Because what you see on the field is what counts, right?” Knowles said. “The answers they can give back to you in the meetings and how we teach, great. Now you have to see it on the field. When you see it on film, then you know, that's real evidence that okay, they're learning.”
“The challenge for us is just to be the best that we can be. I mean, that's all. If we're the best we can be, we'll be fine.”– Jim Knowles on expectations for Ohio State’s defense
With that, Knowles says it’s important for the players to continue working toward their goals on a daily basis, even right now while the Buckeyes aren’t practicing and many of them are away from campus.
“I try to tell them that they’re Olympic athletes, they're the best of the best,” Knowles said. “So a lot of that happens privately, and I have to trust that they're doing all the right things to keep making progress.”
For Ohio State’s defense to be where it needs to be come September, the Buckeyes must continue to make the same kind of progress over the next four months that they have over the last four months. But as long as they do, Knowles thinks they’ll be pleased with the results this fall.
“We just have to get better every day,” Knowles said. “That's what I keep saying. I say 'get better.' They say 'every day.' That's one of our sayings. They say it back to me. And that's all we have to worry about. So I don't think anybody's feeling pressure, just excitement.”