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The 2021 season for the Ohio State Buckeyes wasn’t the memorable one that many had hoped it would be. Head coach Ryan Day lost his first regular season game and his first conference game and failed to make the Big Ten Championship for the first time in his three year tenure.
Their first loss came to a mediocre Oregon team at home, but that conference loss was a brutal 42-27 defeat in Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes’ first loss to the Wolverines in a decade.
In both losses, the Buckeye defense struggled to stop the run. While there were staff changes made during the season, it seemed likely more would come after the final game.
Enter Jim Knowles, the new defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes. Knowles will arrive after the New Year and comes in highly regarded after leading a top 5 defense for the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
Knowles isn’t from some fancy coaching tree, but he is a smart guy. He played at Cornell and spent a large portion of his coaching career there before taking a job at Duke, where he stayed for a decade. He then landed at Oklahoma State where he remained for four seasons.
That’s where he’s been. But what does he run and how does he call a game?
In Stillwater, Knowles ran a variety of coverages and fronts. Sometimes he brought pressure, sometimes he dropped 8 men into coverage. His schemes are incredibly difficult to get a read on, which is exactly what you want in a D coordinator.
There are three areas of defense: the front, the coverage, and the pressure philosophy. Let’s take a look.
Defensive fronts have become more varied in the last decade. There isn’t a clear line between a 3-down D-lineman and a 4-down D-lineman as there once was. Knowles runs multiple fronts, but his bread and butter is a 3-down look with 4-man spacing. That means that the 4-man on the line of scrimmage is standing up but is usually still in the rush. Having the 4th D lineman stand gives versatility and complexity from base looks. He calls the stand up D Lineman the “jack.”
For a change up, Knowles ran a traditional 3-man front with the “jack” roaming around on the edge or in the middle. Sometimes he rushed inside twisting with another D lineman. Sometimes he rushed off the edge. Sometimes he dropped back to spy on the QB or into coverage as others rushed.
The “jack” will be a critical role to fill for the 2022 Buckeye defense.
For the past decade, Ohio State has churned out 1st round cornerback after 1st round cornerback. The Ohio State secondary has been one of the best in the nation. The last two seasons, though, they haven’t been quite as spectacular.
The Buckeye defensive backs can return to their dominating ways, but they’re going to have to spend some time in the playbook. Knowles ran a variety of looks that oscillated between 1 and 2 safeties deep as well as man and zone.
Knowles called some single-deep safety man coverages but did a great job blending them with single-deep safety zone. They disguised it well and made it difficult for the QB to diagnose.
When Knowles ran 2 safety looks, he ran both cover 2 and cover 4, which forces both the corners and the safeties to be versatile. Without getting too deep into the technicalities, let’s just say that Knowles is a pitcher who can throw every pitch.
The Pressure Philosophy
After the Bedlam game this year, it should be obvious to everyone with eyes that Jim Knowles likes to play aggressive. He brings pressure in a variety of ways and from a variety of looks. By deploying a “jack,” Knowles can have great flexibility with blitz packages.
Against the Sooners, he brought a corner blitz off the short side on a 2nd and long, mixed in a variety of 5-man pressures by bringing linebackers and occasionally a safety, and dialed up more than a few all out 6-man max pressures.
However, Knowles doesn’t just simply sell out and bring heat all the time. He shows pressure often, but then also drops into 8 man coverage looks as well. His trick is to mix man and zone behind the pressure. In some pressures, it’s man. Others, it’s zone. Occasionally, he even drops the “jack” away from the line and into coverage as well.
The Buckeyes have a good one in Jim Knowles, but the Buckeye defense will have to dedicate a lot of effort to learn all his calls. Like any great coach, Knowles will likely blend his calls to the talent on the roster, but he had the benefit of a veteran squad his final year in Stillwater. This Buckeye defense is young and talented, and Knowles gives them the chance to grow together.