By gutting last year’s defensive coaching regime to bring in Jim Knowles and company this offseason, Ryan Day sent a clear message that the Buckeye defense needs to make swift and significant changes.
For the past six months, Day has given his new defensive coordinator the necessary time and space to implement his new scheme with a group that struggled in big moments in 2021. But at Big Ten Media Days on Wednesday, Day set the bar for what he wants to see from the unit in very public fashion.
Speaking on the stage at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Day gave Knowles and Ohio State’s defensive personnel a concrete – if lofty – goal for the 2022 season.
“In terms of expectations, we expect a top-10 defense. That's what we want,” Day said. “When we've played our best football, it's because we played really good defense, and we've been balanced and played complementary football. We want to obviously stop the run to begin with and then go from there, but we expect a top-10 defense.”
Make no mistake, Day isn’t talking top-10 in the conference. Day’s first team as head coach at Ohio State, his most well-balanced so far, had the No. 1-ranked defense in the country in 2019. In each of the subsequent two seasons, the Buckeyes ranked 59th in total defense at the end of the year.
Ohio State gave up an average of 38.5 points and 496 total yards in its two losses this past season, and poor defensive play nearly cost the Buckeyes the Rose Bowl as well. Determined not to stumble at all in the forthcoming regular season, Day knows things must change on that side of the ball. That goes double for the run game, where Ohio State allowed 792 total rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in the games against Oregon, Michigan and Utah.
Both Day’s revamped defensive coaching staff and the returning talent on the field – of which there is plenty – will be vital in the pursuit of turning things around.
“First we have to play winning football, and that starts with stopping the run. I think that this offseason has been excellent in terms of them installing the defense, in terms of schematics,” Day said. “I think our new staff has done an excellent job: Jim with the linebackers, Perry (Eliano) with the safeties, Tim (Walton) with the corners and obviously Larry (Johnson) up front.
“They come back with a lot of experience, (we get) almost the entire defense back, and really almost the entire Rose Bowl team is back from last year. So that's exciting. So we have a bit more experience there. So that part's good.”
While the Buckeyes only lose three regular defensive starters from the 2021 team (Haskell Garrett, Tyreke Smith and Bryson Shaw), the returners still have their work cut out for them in learning a complex new defensive system with several first-year Buckeye coaches.
Had Day not seen plenty of positive signs from the group already this offseason, that might be more of a concern heading into August.
“New scheme, new coaches, all of those things are new,” Day said. “I think going up against them in the spring and seeing what's happened this summer and now into the preseason, it's been exciting to watch. There's just an aggressiveness about them.”
When asked about the aforementioned 2019 team Wednesday, Day said he can see some similarities with the 2022 group, even if the comparison isn’t exactly one-to-one. That team also had new defensive leadership, with Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison serving as co-defensive coordinators, and returned most of its main contributors on defense.
The result was a near 180-degree turnaround that led Ohio State to its first College Football Playoff berth in three seasons after a dismal year on defense in 2018.
“You had a team that had some really good young talent that got experience a year before, kind of a new style and system of defense coming in that year, you're kind of seeing those two things come together,” Day said. “Now we gotta go put it on the field, but the expectation is a top-10 offense every year. And the expectation of a top-10 defense, we did that year and we had a strong team. So I think when you combine those two things, if we can build on it, then that should be our expectation every year.”
While Day is shooting for a top-10 group on defense to balance out his perennially electric offense, the leaders of that unit want to set the bar even higher. Fourth-year safety Ronnie Hickman, Ohio State’s lone defensive representative at Big Ten Media Days, said he’s shooting for top-five status in 2022. That’s something the Buckeye defense talks about every day.
“One of the biggest things for me is I know the experience that we have,” Hickman said. “I know a lot of times last year this was the first – for me even – it was my first time out there and for many of the other guys it was the same kind of thing in their case. So as far as the D-line, the linebacker room and even the secondary, we got more experience. We know what it's like to be out there, and we know when it's loud on third downs and stuff like that. And that will just help us.”
Before the new-look Buckeye defense sees live competition in real games this fall, it will have to contend with a Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback and several other all-world talents at skill positions in practice. But C.J. Stroud, who said he’s challenging his defensive teammates to have a top-three unit nationally, said the defense has passed several of the early tests as it prepares to take on a potential top-10 team in Notre Dame Week 1.
“As a defense, you want to play freely. You want to do what you’re called to do, what your talents are. I definitely think Coach Knowles’ defense does that,” Stroud said. “And it's definitely challenging for me in practice, which I do enjoy. Just because I like challenges, and I think the harder it is in practice, the easier it'll be in the game. So just seeing that and seeing them make plays in the practice is amazing for me just to see that.
“Both ways it'll be even this year and we'll both be really good.”