The way Ohio State’s 2022 season ended hasn’t shaken Jim Knowles’ confidence in what his defense can become.
Not that it doesn’t still bother him. In fact, quite the opposite. Even five months later, the 87 points Ohio State gave up to Michigan and Georgia – the only two teams to beat the Buckeyes last season – still give its defensive coordinator trouble sleeping. But perhaps because of those losses, Knowles seems more optimistic than ever that improvement is on the horizon.
“It's haunted me. But just haunting me, that doesn't do anybody any good, except it just keeps me up. So if it's a problem, you got to fix it,” Knowles said during an interview session with Ohio State's assistant coaches last week. “You got to take responsibility, take accountability, then you have to say, 'OK, why did this happen?' It was a matchup or somebody just not doing something right. Well, that all comes back to me. And so yeah, you kind of go back to the start. You look at everything, you look at your teaching progression. And then you have to learn.
“You say, OK, we're in matchup games. Those were two matchup games. We did not, I did not get the job done. So then you have to say, OK, how do I do a better job of, from the start, planning out the defensive progressions for those matchup games. So you gotta go back to the beginning. Anytime you try to do something that's a stop gap, or something that's just for that week, to me, you're doomed for failure. It's got to become part of your progression. It's gotta be in your mind from the start. The things that didn't go well last year, how do I – from day one – start to make sure that that doesn't happen.”
In his last stop at Oklahoma State, Knowles’ defense saw sizable improvements each year, culminating in a 2021 season in which the Cowboy defense ranked among the top 10 units in the nation in scoring, total and rushing defense.
But could Knowles actually sense the impending year-to-year improvement from his group before they truly proved it on the field during the season?
“Yeah, I felt it. I think it is less about me implementing more, although that's always there, right? It's just a little bit of an injection here or there as they can handle it to get it up,” Knowles said. “But it's more about how the players understand. You want everyone on the defense to know what everyone else does. You want everyone to know where the ball is gonna end up. When I make a call based on the play the offense runs, the ball is gonna go here. I mean, that's as simple as it gets. It looks more complicated, but if you know, because every defense has a hole or an escape hatch or some part of it in it. So that's how they get better.”
Now entering his second year at Ohio State, a similar – if not significantly steeper – upward trajectory is expected from Knowles’ defense in 2023. Never mind that the Buckeye defense already took a major step up in nearly every major statistical category from 2021 to 2022.
“It's haunted me. But just haunting me, that doesn't do anybody any good, except it just keeps me up. So if it's a problem, you got to fix it."– Knowles on the end of last season
Fortunately for anxious Buckeye fans, Knowles seems to be getting a familiar feeling after seeing what the Ohio State defense brought to the table over the course of the spring, in which it largely dominated against Ryan Day’s vaunted scarlet and gray offense. So much so that Knowles doesn’t think a spot among the top defenses in the country is out of the question for Ohio State in 2023.
“There's the opportunity to be the best, in my mind. There's the opportunity to be the best. To make across-the-board improvements from what was already an improved defense, but the expectation to be a top-five defense that everyone can count on all the time. And that's there,” Knowles said. “I've seen enough, been around these guys, Coach (Larry Johnson), Coach (Mickey Marotti), the way they run the program. I saw our secondary in the spring make excellent improvements. Now, everything matters, nothing counts until you get to the game, right? But when you see guys just get your hands on more balls, just challenge routes.”
And while many defensive coordinators (perhaps even Knowles himself last year) would allow some leeway when a talent like Marvin Harrison Jr. produces an explosive gain in practice, Knowles doesn’t plan on being so forgiving this year. No matter how good the Ohio State offense may be, Knowles wants to see his unit win matchups against it on every snap in 2023.
After all, the top teams in the country will have weapons of a similar caliber with which to test the Buckeyes by the time they get to their toughest challenges of the season.
“I went through this at Oklahoma State, I do believe it's real. When you play and practice against a high-powered offense with great receivers and quarterback, first-round picks, you get beat in practice. But that can't be OK,” Knowles said. “Doesn't matter who you're going against, that can't be OK. And that's how our own iron on the offense has to sharpen our defense. Because this is how we're going to be the best, is we have to be the best against our offense every day. We're gonna go against our offense, what, how many times? And then an opponent 15 times. So we need to be great against our offense, and that's been my message and preaching is it's not OK. Even though our offense is great, it can never be OK for us to get beat.”
To cut through the complexities of his convoluted scheme, Knowles put it in layman’s terms: he wants his players to anticipate what an opposing offense will do before it actually does it. He said All-American linebacker Tommy Eichenberg was ahead of the curve in that regard a season ago, but that others may be catching up.
“Take Tommy, for example. You saw that accelerated, right? Because he was a guy who really picked it up. … He figured it out a little more quickly maybe than some other guys,” Knowles said. “That if I made this call, and they ran this play, the ball was going to end up over here. So that's how you play fast. So when you get 11 guys who can do that, that's how you get better.”
But is it realistic to expect every Buckeye at the top of the depth chart to gain that same understanding? According to Knowles, “absolutely.”
“That's the goal. That's why I do it,” Knowles said. “I think you saw that at the end at Oklahoma State. I mean, there wasn't a single four-star or five-star guy on that defense, and we were arguably the best in the country if you put all the categories together, maybe within the top three. But everybody understood and everybody was able to play fast.”
Ohio State isn’t short on four- and five-star talent on defense, and if Knowles can get the other shoe to drop, his optimism won’t be misplaced.