In Jim Knowles’ first year as Ohio State defensive coordinator last year, the Buckeyes went from the No. 59 total defense in 2021 to the No. 14 defense nationally in 2022.
Despite the 51-yard per game decrease, opponents only scored 23 total points fewer last year than they did the year before. The main reason for that was the large number of big plays given up by the Buckeyes. A step too late, a stumble, or a blown coverage allowed opponents to hit big plays at an alarming rate.
Ohio State’s defense gave up 11 plays of 50 yards or more from scrimmage last year. Only five teams in the nation gave up more. Over the course of the previous two seasons, a much-criticized OSU defense gave up a total of 13 such plays.
But there is reason for optimism, and it’s been something that Knowles has seen since the spring. Last year, the Buckeyes were learning a new defensive scheme. Now they know it, and it’s showing up on the practice field.
“Yep. I mean, I do see it clicking. I see players in the right spot,” Knowles said after practice on Thursday. “Players understanding. And more of the why. You know, why I call a certain thing. I expect all of our guys to be able to answer that. Not just what, or where, or how, but why. You know, what’s the purpose behind this call? And they’re able to see that now.”
This is the first time in their respective Buckeye careers that any of these Ohio State defenders have been in the same defensive scheme with the same defensive coordinator for two years in a row. If that wasn’t showing up in practice, it would be a concern.
Knowles also has a better feel for what his players can do. Though when asked which is more important — him having a year of knowledge of what his players can do, or his players having a year’s worth of knowledge in the scheme, he didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“The players having a year’s worth of knowledge in the scheme,” he said. “Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I haven’t made a legal tackle since 1986. So they’re the guys that are going to make the plays.”
Saturday will be the third practice of fall camp. The Buckeyes have depth at every position, basically putting four teams on the field and getting all of them work. Some of that depth is young and unproven, but they are learning from the veterans.
When Knowles looks at what the Buckeyes are doing, and what they have, he is seeing good things.
“I just see quality,” he said. “I see quality. I see adjustments. I see fits. I hear more than see communication.”
The two areas on defense where the Buckeyes need to improve from last year are the defensive line and the secondary. If the defensive line doesn’t give a quarterback enough time to take a home run shot, then that eliminates the secondary even having to worry about it.
That’s an oversimplification, but the defensive line and the secondary are forever connected. They feed off of each other. The better the coverage, the longer there is to rush. The better the rush, the less a secondary has to cover.
“We call that one of our winning edges,” Knowles explained. “I say, ‘coverage and rush’ and they say, ‘working together.’ So we know that those two go together. And the better the rush is, the better the coverage is. The better coverage is, the better the rush becomes, so they’re intertwined.”
To break it down even further, a defense can look awfully good with a dominating pass rush and lockdown cornerbacks. The Buckeyes have potential at both areas. In fact, Knowles has loved what he’s seen from junior cornerbacks Jordan Hancock and Denzel Burke, but he still wants to see more..
“Both [Hancock] and Denzel have had great springs and great summers,” he said. “So the next step for both of them is to be dominant. I mean, dominant. They both can do it.”
If the Buckeyes can get that domination at cornerback, everything else could fall into place.
“It changes everything,” Knowles said of dominant cornerback play. “Changes everything. It allows you to play with everybody else with their eyes on the ball. And then allow those guys — the other nine — to run around and make all those plays. When you can eliminate people on the outside, it makes things a lot easier.”
But the cornerbacks can’t do it alone. They will still have safety help, but as the football saying goes, it all starts up front. Knowles is confident that the Buckeyes will have what it takes on the defensive line.
With a veteran group of talented linemen to lean on, the possibilities may finally meet expectations.
“Sky is the limit,” he said of the defensive line. “Got the best coach. You got veteran players. You got some depth. The heat, repetition upfront, you need a lot of depth so those guys can play fast. But I don’t see any limitations to why they can’t be the best in the country.”