Jim Knowles has installed 50% more of his defensive scheme over the past two weeks.
Ohio State’s new defensive coordinator made an eyebrow-raising comment while meeting with the media on Aug. 9 when he said only about 25% of his defense had been installed. Just 13 days later, however, Knowles said he has now been able to teach about 75% of his defensive concepts to his players.
More importantly, Knowles feels his new players know more than enough of his defense to be ready for the Buckeyes’ first game of the season in just 12 days against Notre Dame.
“I’m very comfortable with where we're at,” Knowles said Monday. “Because we're gonna have to pare it down now, we're going to have to get specific to our plan as we go. So I think we've come a long way in terms of installation. Like I said in the spring and again in fall camp, farther than I would have expected.
“The players are very open to learning and they want to be great. So that part of it has been exciting, and we've been able to get a lot in. But we're gonna have to start to pare it back and get specific to our opponent.”
Knowles never planned on installing the entirety of his defensive playbook this offseason. Knowles says the Buckeyes and even his fellow coaches might not ever know all of the ideas he’s cooked up in his mind.
“We never really want to get to 100 (percent), right? We always want to leave a few things that nobody knows that we have. Including the coaches or anybody,” Knowles said with a laugh. “Just a few things like way back here that I keep to myself.”
Knowles anticipates that he will still teach his players some new defensive concepts over the course of the season. For the most part, though, they’ll be operating with what they’ve already learned over the past eight months, with Knowles picking and choosing different concepts to emphasize each week based on how the Buckeyes plan to match up with each opponent.
“We have our tools, and they know them, and then we have things that I haven't quite sprung on them yet,” Knowles said. “I think that by the end of the season, it'll crank up even more. But I gotta be judicious with that. If you throw something new at them the week of an opponent, I don't like that.
“We used to do that all the time back in the old days. Because I felt like you had time and offenses weren't that complicated. So you could come in with a new, say, ‘Hey, this is what we're doing this week,’ and it’s something brand new. I don't do that anymore. I like them to know everything that's going on and not spring too much on them. But we'll crank it up a few percentage points by the year’s over, just because we'll need some things.”
“I’m very comfortable with where we're at.”– Jim Knowles on Ohio State’s defensive installation
Over the course of his first offseason at Ohio State, Knowles has learned that he might not need to use as many different defensive concepts as he did at Oklahoma State and other places he’s previously coached. He has more talent to work with in Columbus than he’s ever had before, and Ryan Day has been impressed with how Knowles has tailored what he does defensively to fit the strengths of his new players.
“I think what Jim's done a really good job of is you have your whole offense or your whole defense, but then you figure out what areas fit the guys that you have. And this is a different group than he had at the previous stop and in previous years. So I think he's recognized some things that maybe he had a little bit differently at Oklahoma State than he has here, and he's tailored the scheme to that, which is great,” Day said Monday. “That's the sign of a good college football coach.”
Knowles says the biggest thing that’s impressed him about his new players over the course of the offseason, though, is how quickly they’ve been able to learn new concepts.
“Like I’ve said from the beginning, what has surprised me the most was how quickly they pick things up,” Knowles said. “They want to be great. Some of them went through some tough times last year. They want to avenge that, they want to step up. They want to learn. I think that they all have visions of getting to the next level, and they want to learn. They want to pick your brain, and I think they've soaked it up. So that's been surprising to me how quickly they got that.”
As a result, Knowles approaches the end of preseason camp believing the Buckeyes’ defensive growth is “absolutely” further along than he thought it would be going into the season.
“We have been able to create competitive situations against what arguably is the best offense and the best offensive coaches in the country, and we have been able to be competitive. And that's a big deal,” Knowles said. “And now we have to replicate that on the field. But you feel better about it because you've seen it in practice. You can't get done practice and say, ‘Well, game day, we're gonna step up. We're gonna holler at each other and smack each other and that's gonna make us play better.’ No, you have to do it on the grass. So I feel great about our competitiveness against what is a great offense on a daily basis.”
Knowles’ confidence in his defense was as apparent as ever on Monday, when he doubled down on his expectation that Ohio State should have one of the top five defenses in the country.
“We do talk to creating something special with the defense. Reviving that Silver Bullet culture, having a defense that the fans can be proud of and their parents and the rest of the team can look at as a strength,” Knowles said. “Really, there's no reason not to. Everything else at the Ohio State is top five, then why shouldn’t the defense be?”
While Knowles had expressed concerns about Ohio State’s cornerback depth two weeks ago, he’s feeling good about the Buckeyes’ depth at every defensive position now that most of their cornerbacks who were injured have returned to practice. When he was asked what his biggest concern is going into the season, he indicated there isn’t any area of the defense that he’s particularly worried about right now.
“I don't have that many concerns,” Knowles said after a long pause. “Now that the corners are coming back, I feel confident in what we have. Just seeing it back in an actual game, live situation, that’s (a concern) every year for a football coach the first time you go out there. You want them to just play as well as they can. But that's – I have no concerns, really.”