James Laurinaitis’ Promotion Not a Huge Shift, But Allows Jim Knowles to Focus More on Ohio State’s Defensive Scheme

By Andy Anders on May 15, 2024 at 8:40 am
Jim Knowles

James Laurinaitis’ coronation as linebackers coach occurred this offseason, but he ruled as the room’s regent in all but name in 2023.

Recruiting to whatever extent a graduate assistant can, heavily involved in the position’s on-field development and even dictating some of the in-game rotations, there are only subtle ways that Laurinaitis’ promotion changed the alignment of Ohio State’s coaching staff.

“I don’t think a lot is different. I certainly felt like the linebacker coach last year,” Laurinaitis said after being named full-time linebackers coach. “I think the guys would have said the same thing. It’s the little things to me, maybe not doing some things in the breakdown that a graduate assistant does. Being able to have my own office, to be honest. ... The title brings that those are your guys, that’s your room. And there’s a responsibility with that, but I cherish that.”

Still, that responsibility carries enough of an unburdening on defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to be notable. With Laurinaitis now fully in charge of linebackers, Knowles can step back and focus further on schematics while also roaming the practice field more evenly at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

“Just having James additionally last year was a big bonus because of his experience and the way he works with the players,” Knowles said in March. “He’s a lot nicer to them than I am. Last year it was good cop, bad cop, y’know? Now the bad cop’s left the room so I’m sure the players love it.”

Ohio State’s sheer defensive numbers were impressive in 2023. The Buckeyes took a massive leap from 2022 that becomes even more jaw-dropping when considering the Buckeyes ranked 59th in total defense and 97th in pass defense in 2021.

Two years after those numbers and his takeover of the defense, Knowles led the Buckeyes to the No. 3 total, No. 2 scoring and No. 1 passing defense last year.

Even more impressive is the way that Knowles accomplished that feat. In 2022, Ohio State finished top 26 in each of the four major defensive statistical categories but was the victim of costly big plays that played a huge hand in its losses to Michigan and Georgia to end the year. In 2023, Knowles pivoted to a scheme more predicated on preventing those big plays with a heavy dose of base defenses. Then, as the secondary and defensive line proved itself as the season drug on, he mixed in some more aggressive calls.

Now that there’s a touch more time on Knowles’ hands with Laurinaitis’ promotion, some new ideas have started to bounce around his head. Perhaps most notable is a “double eagle” package that would feature a 5-2 front with three defensive tackles and one of the team's defensive ends like JT Tuimoloau or Jack Sawyer in an outside linebacker-esque role.

“You start to look at some double eagle-type of packaging,” Knowles said. “My thoughts are with Jack and JT, I want to train them as outside linebackers. So you’ve got Hero, Tyleik and Ty (at defensive tackle), you can get to more five guys, five D-linemen in the game. We’ll train guys like Jack and JT and Kenyatta – that’s just kind of been my thoughts. If we’re strong inside, those guys can become more multiple, I think there’s techniques and things that they can use when they get to the next level.”

The front would be an option against some 12 personnel looks from run-heavy teams in the Big Ten. Another concept against such opponents that Knowles made some use of in his first two years is the classic 4-3, which would allow for the two five-star prospects competing at Will linebacker – C.J. Hicks and Sonny Styles – to get on the field at the same time.

“We’re still 4-2-5 (base) but multiple deployments,” Knowles said. “At times we can be 4-3 but you’ve still got Sonny. So now you’ve got Sonny at Sam linebacker who has experience playing safety. That really creates more multiplicity.”

In either case, the bottom line is to fit a scheme around your talent, not vice versa. Knowles wants the best 11 players on the field playing the best possible roles against any given look from the opposing offense.

That was a big reason why he abandoned his trademark “Jack” position in 2023, though he hasn’t ruled out bringing it back in some capacity in 2024.

“You always want to try to do what’s best for the personnel,” Knowles said. “My thinking is, ‘OK, maybe we’re not built for a Jack-type of package.’ It’s not what I like, it’s what works. Maybe we’re not built for the Jack, but maybe we’re built more for the double eagle concept. It’s just something to think about.”

“You always want to try to do what’s best for the personnel.”– Jim Knowles on building defensive schemes

Knowles also now has another former coordinator on his staff to bounce ideas off of, one he has a close personal connection with dating back to his days at Duke in safeties coach Matt Guerrieri.

“It’s efficiency first, to be able to be on the same page,” Guerrieri said. “Then I think also knowing where it came from helps, too. If you know the history of something, then you can tweak the end product in a way that, ‘Hey, we’ve done this before.’ ‘Ah, we dabbled with that, it didn’t really work.’ That type of stuff. So I think to be able to have that history and experience with him will go a long way.”

Another advantage playing into Knowles’ schematic favor in 2024 is the knowledge of the players in his scheme. Most of this season's projected starters have been in it for each of his three years in Columbus and the Buckeyes return nine first-stringers from 2023.

“It’s different when you put the film on. When he first came here, it was Oklahoma State film,” Guerrieri said. “Now it’s two years of Ohio State film. So when you start talking about, ‘What does it look like?’ These guys are now watching themselves on film. It makes a big difference.”

The ways that Knowles can hone his focus on the big picture defensively are subtle this year. But subtleties often make all the difference for a team vying for a national championship.

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