Ryan Day didn’t leave much room for misinterpretation.
The Buckeye head coach was definitive and direct when asked about his tolerance for giving up big plays on defense in 2023, and the urgency in his answer conveyed just how fresh the wounds are from the end of this past season.
Jim Knowles talked all season about expecting to give up a handful of explosive plays in a given game, but Day was firm in refuting the sustainability of that premise – at least for a championship-caliber college football program.
“No, no. I mean, we can't give up big plays like that,” Day said during a Feb. 1 press conference. “That hurt us in the last two games. I mean, there's no secret there. Too many big plays. And if we're gonna win those games, we can't give up big plays like that. Was that the only problem? No. But I think Jim knows that, and that's something we got to get fixed in the offseason.”
Knowles isn’t taking the defensive results from the final few games of his first season at Ohio State lightly. But as of now, the second-year Buckeye defensive coordinator doesn’t think sweeping schematic alterations are the answer.
Instead, Knowles thinks implementing more of his scheme, making the right calls in the moment and correcting technical errors made by the on-field personnel will be the biggest factors in improved performance from one year to the next.
“It haunts me all the time. But I mean, switching things up, that's not the answer. Because I think we do that well enough,” Knowles said. “I think when you look at the extensiveness of our package and the different calls, we had enough change-ups. Any time a play goes bad, I always want to critique myself on the call on that play in that situation. And if I had it back, what would I do? Those are the things that keep me up.”
"I've got to be even more demanding and push and put on more steam with the players individually on the preciseness of the technique. And I got to really bear down."– Jim Knowles
Knowles knew it was important to establish relationships with his new roster as a first-year coordinator in 2022. Now that he’s gained the Buckeyes' trust, he believes he can push harder to get the results he desires from individual players.
If Knowles was holding back last season, he doesn’t intend to in 2023.
“Now that I'm coming into year two, I've got to be even more demanding and push and put on more steam with the players individually on the preciseness of the technique,” Knowles said. “And I got to really bear down. You're coming in the first year, and you want to make sure that you make that connection with everybody. And now's the time for me to use it. I need to use that connection, and now I need to push and hone down on those techniques. Because we have enough on film now to show, 'Look at this technique. It's the same play that we did here. And then we gave it up here.' So the bear is in the detail, and that's what I really need to push.”
Knowles’ scheme is notoriously complex, and throughout the season, he repeatedly said the Buckeyes hadn’t yet put in all the bells and whistles he plans to employ eventually. Knowles knew the timeline with which he was expected to produce a defensive turnaround was significantly sped up compared to his previous stops. But he also didn’t want to overload his players with too much information right off the bat.
It’s a fine line to walk for Knowles, but he said he implemented more than half of his scheme in year one. No longer a fresh face in the program, though, Knowles believes he can ramp up the learning curve while driving a harder bargain on technique.
“I'd say we got, out of everything I hope to do during my time here at Ohio State, we probably got up to maybe two-thirds of it,” Knowles said. “There's a lot to it, and there's a constant management of how much to put in and then the burden on the players, really. You want them to be able to play fast, and so it's a constant judgment call. But I thought it took me a lot longer other places I've been.”
Knowles will also benefit from a year’s worth of film on his returning players’ performance in his system. Knowles gave the Buckeyes something of a clean slate upon entering the program last winter, but now he has tangible reference points to draw upon with his personnel.
“There's film. There's video now. That's what we're spending our time going through right now, initially, even before we move on to talk about the system and where we want to go with it,” Knowles said. “We're talking about each player individually because you can pull their plays, and you can look at their strengths and weaknesses. So now that I have a year under my belt, my job is to say, 'OK, with the guys we have coming back, what do they do best?' And talk about those things. It's not what I know but what they do best. And now we have video to look at.”
Knowles didn’t rule out trying new things ahead of the 2023 season, but he said that will only be a small portion of what the Buckeyes work on this spring. More important to Knowles is making sure his players possess air-tight technique and understanding of the fundamentals so that costly errors that reared their head this past season don’t resurface in crucial moments during the year to come.
“I think the experimentation part of it, which is always fun for guys who are creative to do, is probably about 25%. I think we'll want to look at some things, some ideas that I have in spring in that 25%,” Knowles said. “But three-quarters of it has to be getting better at the base techniques. Things we need to do to win every game. Looking at the explosive plays, things that might have hurt us and being able to show those to the players and then saying, 'OK, this is how we're going to fix that.' Not necessarily with a call or creativity, because I like that, and I put a lot of onus on myself to do that.
“Any time a defense doesn't work, I blame myself. But that's not the world the players live in. They live in, 'OK, how are you going to get me better, Coach, at these fundamentals, techniques?' So you have to invest at least three-quarters of spring ball doing that and getting better.”