Ohio State Defense Will Weaponize Knowledge in Third Year Under Jim Knowles

By Andy Anders on May 24, 2024 at 11:35 am
Jim Knowles

Knowledge is power, and three years of studying anything brings plenty of knowledge.

Nine of the 11 projected starters in Ohio State’s 2024 defense are entering their third year playing for defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. Davison Igbinosun is in his second year at Ohio State after starting in 2023 and safety Caleb Downs, the only projected starter with no background in Knowles’ defense, is fresh off a freshman season posting triple-digit tackles at Alabama.

There’s no doubt that there are gobs of talent and experience in the Buckeyes’ ball-stopping unit, with the potential to have all 11 players be multi-year Power Five starters if Sonny Styles wins the Will linebacker job. Add on top of that a concrete familiarity with their plan of attack and what the pieces around them are doing, and chemistry and knowledge become additional weapons for the unit.

“I don’t want to put too much out there but we’re gonna be having a lot of different looks this year, a lot of different positions, guys everywhere,” cornerback Denzel Burke said in March. “We’re gonna dictate what the offense can do this year. That’s our goal and I feel very comfortable with the guys I’m on the field with. You can take away a lot of things knowing that you’ve got help inside or you’ve got help over top, and just knowing those guys are always going to be in their spot makes the game a lot faster.” 

“We’re gonna dictate what the offense can do this year. That’s our goal and I feel very comfortable with the guys I’m on the field with.”– Denzel Burke on Ohio State's defense

The evolution of Knowles’ defense over his first two seasons at Ohio State is already stark.

He entered with a track record of getting better the longer he was with a given program. His previous stop, Oklahoma State, is perhaps the best example of that, with the Cowboys going from 97th in scoring defense his first year to ninth in his last.

At Ohio State, Knowles improved a defense that ranked 59th in total defense and 38th in scoring defense nationally in 2021 to 14th in total and 24th in scoring defense his first year in 2022. It still wasn’t to the team’s standards, however, with cavalcades of big plays costing them in games against Michigan and Georgia.

In 2023, Knowles decided to drop his trademark “Jack” position and play more straight up on defense, dialing back his typical bundle of blitzes. Ohio State responded by posting the No. 2 scoring, No. 3 total and No. 1 passing defense numbers in the country, and as the secondary proved its mettle, the Buckeyes became more aggressive later in the season.

“It’s what makes him the best in the country. He’s able to adapt,” new Ohio State safeties coach Matt Guerrieri said of Knowles. “Some guys have a great defense, the No. 1 defense in the country and then it stays the same for a number of years and people start to catch up with it a little bit. It’s hard to get a bead on him. He spends a ton of time, he’s probably in his office right now studying what his next move is. So I would say what makes him special is the way that he can teach and be able to take a system and be able to make it very functional for the guys.”

Guerrieri previously worked with Knowles at Duke and initially joined Ohio State’s staff as an analyst in 2022 to help install what was then a new scheme for the players. He left to become co-defensive coordinator at Indiana in 2023, and he’s seen a great difference in what Ohio State’s defensive players know since returning in January.

“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. And it makes a big difference when you say, ‘OK, what does it look like for those guys? And then what’s the application to the Big Ten?’ It changes based on when Jim was in the ACC or the Big 12 or the Big Ten, that changes over time.”

For Knowles, facing Big Ten offenses that run more 12 personnel, heavy fronts and run-game-based attacks means coming up with creative ways to match up. The defense has featured a dose of 4-3 in response.

“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 (Styles). So now you’ve got Sonny at Sam linebacker who has experience playing safety. That really creates more multiplicity.”

In 2024 specifically, Knowles is considering a “double eagle” package against such teams, one that would feature a five-man front with three defensive tackles and either Jack Sawyer or JT Tuimoloau standing up as an outside linebacker.

“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.”

It almost goes without saying when returning so many starters from a defense that finished top three in three of the four major statistical categories (Ohio State was 29th in rush defense last year), but there are elite athletes all over the field for the Buckeyes.

Downs, Styles, JT Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer and C.J. Hicks – the player battling with Styles to start at Will – were all five-star prospects out of high school. Burke’s been an excellent stalwart at corner, Jordan Hancock emerged as a weapon at nickel last season and Tyleik Williams racked up 53 tackles and 10 tackles for loss last season.

“Having Caleb and having Sonny in those positions, we just have athletes everywhere,” Tuimoloau said. “I think for us, being three years in this system now, we should know it and we know it like the back of our hands to where now we can make a lot of different adjustments. Allowing at certain moments and points where dudes are gonna be dudes. Understand what your assignment is and your job as well as knowing that you have a lot of dudes around you to where they know how you play.”

While their schematic knowledge should allow the Buckeyes to get creative, play off each other and experiment, there’s also a desire not to complicate things too much and just let the athletes they have play without an overwhelming amount of thought. Linebacker Cody Simon feels the team has done a good job striking that balance.

“I think Coach Knowles does a really good job of keeping things simple when they need to be simple and then molding it into more complex things,” Simon said. “We’re trying to show different things and we’ll get into that as the spring and the season goes on, but really the sky is the limit with how we can change things around, different packages and stuff.”

Ohio State’s defense will surely evolve once more in 2024. But the evolutions of 2022 and 2023 give it a baseline to yield fantastic results.

“It goes to, what does it take to win? And that’s when you look at, hey, that’s what the bottom line is, winning games and being able to win it all here,” Guerrieri said. “I think for (Knowles) it was, a lot of times in his career, he’s been a really aggressive guy to dictate on defense and force an offense’s hand. Maybe he saw that, ‘OK, what’s the prevention of explosives and the tradeoff for creating a negative versus keeping the ball in front and inside?’ I’m sure that will continue to adapt over time.”

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