Perhaps Ryan Day isn’t thinking big enough when it comes to what his defense may be capable of this season.
The Ohio State head coach set the bar for the unit’s performance at Big Ten Media Days last month, making headlines with his comment that he’s expecting a “top-10 defense” out of his first-year defensive coordinator in 2022.
After Ohio State’s fifth preseason practice on Tuesday, Jim Knowles raised the bar even higher.
Asked to detail his reaction to Day’s comment in Indianapolis, Knowles almost seemed disappointed that Day’s expectations weren’t a bit more grandiose.
“What goes through my mind is that I wish he would have said top five. Because that's what we expect,” Knowles said. “We talk about having a Silver Bullet defense to mirror the traditions that have been around here, I tell the guys that means top five. That's what we're pressing for. But nothing really goes through my mind other than it's great to be at the Ohio State because the expectations are high. And that's what I've always wanted.”
Knowles is no stranger to a top-five defensive unit. At Oklahoma State last season, the Knowles-led Cowboy defense ranked fourth-best in the country with an average of only 297.9 total yards allowed per game. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes came in 55 spots lower to finish the year with the 59th-best total defense in college football.
All four teams that earned a College Football Playoff bid in 2021 – Georgia, Alabama, Michigan and Cincinnati – finished with top-20 total defenses. After missing the CFP for the first time since 2018, Day and company know a quick turnaround will be required for national championship aspirations to be realized in Columbus.
“When we've played our best football, it's because we played really good defense, and we've been balanced and played complementary football,” Day said at Lucas Oil Stadium on July 27. “We want to obviously stop the run to begin with and then go from there.”
Knowles’ track record for dramatically improving defenses is well-documented in his previous stops at Duke and Oklahoma State. But in both instances, the turnaround required multiple years. Knowles doesn’t have that luxury at Ohio State, which means his complex scheme must be installed even faster.
"It's a challenge, but we're fighting the good fight and you can see signs all the time that we're elevating the level of the defense to meet the offense.”– Jim Knowles
With less than a month remaining before the Sept. 3 season opener, Knowles said he hasn’t even implemented a third of his scheme in Columbus.
“(We’ve installed) 25%,” Knowles said. “I mean, it's increasing exponentially, daily. It's like go, go, go. We don't stop … We have to keep going full-steam ahead. We may tweak the plan a little bit as we go along, but we don’t have the luxury that you have in the spring to just say, ‘Hey, let’s push one day, pull back the next.’ We can’t do that right now. We’re push, push, push – maybe a little bit lighter push – but then push. So we’re not backing off.”
That’s not to say the Buckeyes haven’t already made significant progress since Knowles took over the reins in January. Knowles said he’s further along in the installation process than he was at this point in Stillwater.
“Early on, yeah, it took me some time to get to where we're at Oklahoma State. We got here, and past here, where we're at,” Knowles said. “But we got to this point at the Ohio State much faster than we did at Oklahoma State. … Nothing is easy. But I just feel like it's just more accelerated. It's like driving 75 or driving 90. You're just going faster, and it's fun. That's for sure.”
One positive indicator about the progress of the Buckeye defense this offseason has been the reception it’s gotten from members of the Ohio State offense. C.J. Stroud said in the spring that the multiple looks of Knowles’ scheme have caused confusion for him at times. Stroud doubled down on that idea at Big Ten Media Days in July and said practices have been considerably less one-sided than they were a season ago.
“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 in Indianapolis. “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.”
Knowles pushed back on the notion that his unit has won just as much as it's lost against Stroud and company in practice, but said there have been clear signs of improvement in that regard over the last several months.
“Sometimes I think that we've been challenging our offense, but we have the best quarterback in the country and the most dynamic offense and the best coaches,” Knowles said. “So it's a challenge, but we're fighting the good fight and you can see signs all the time that we're elevating the level of the defense to meet the offense.”
If Knowles’ defense matches Day’s offense in 2022, it might just be the best unit in the country. While that goal may still sound hyperbolic, given Ohio State’s defensive performance the past two seasons, it’s not too far off from what Knowles expects to achieve in short order.