OSU looking for turnaround on defense

COLUMBUS – Ohio State competes for championships.

But last year it did that without a championship-level defense. And that was a problem. Such a problem that defensive line coach Larry Johnson is the only OSU defensive coach from last year who will be back this season.

While Ohio State’s offense led the nation in scoring and total offense in 2021, the defense struggled.

The Buckeyes were 34th in the country in sacks, 38th in scoring defense, 59th in total defense and 97th in passing yards allowed.

Maybe the most alarming thing was that the defense seemed confused by Oregon’s offense and was embarrassed by Michigan in OSU’s two losses last year.

Oregon had 505 yards total offense, averaged 7.1 yards per rushing play and did not allow a sack in a 35-28 win. Michigan rushed for 297 yards and six touchdowns and averaged 7.2 yards per carry in a 42-27 win.

OSU outscored Utah 48-45 to win the Rose Bowl and finished with an 11-2 record. But the Buckeyes did not win the Big Ten championship for the first time since 2016, and they did not go to the College Football Playoff.

Ryan Day had seen enough. Ten days after the Michigan game, Jim Knowles was announced as Ohio State’s new defensive coordinator. Knowles, a highly respected defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, got a three-year contract at $1.9 million per year, an OSU record salary for an assistant coach.

Knowles’ instructions were simple: Fix the defense. And do whatever it takes to accomplish that. Day said he wanted the 56-year-old Knowles to be the head coach of the defense.

Can he turn OSU’s defense around in eight months? And if he can, could that produce a national championship for an Ohio State team whose offense is populated by stars like quarterback C.J. Stroud, running back TreVeyon Henderson, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and several other players who are potential stars?

OSU has three other new coaches this season. Cornerbacks coach Tim Walton was hired away from the Jacksonville Jaguars, and safeties coach Perry Eliano was an assistant at the University of Cincinnati. Offensive line coach Justin Frye, who replaced Greg Studrawa, came from UCLA.

But the spotlight is on Knowles, who has a reputation for being a sharp-minded innovator, a bit of an eccentric and a coach whose players love him despite the fact he is quick to let them know if their performance has fallen short of his standards.

Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy described Knowles’ coaching style to 247sports.com as “a little rougher and more cerebral than what normal coaches are.”

One of the core principles of Knowles’ defense is to try to keep opposing offenses off balance because they never know where pressure might come from. He also sometimes brings the element of surprise to his practices.

Once at Oklahoma State he reportedly carried a coffee mug into practice and told the players he was not going to say anything after a bad play or a mistake but would instead take a sip of coffee from the mug, which carried a message that said, “That ain’t it, bro.”

Day said he thought “long and hard” before replacing four assistant coaches for his fourth season as Ohio State’s head coach. “I felt like a fresh start was the right thing to do,” he said.

“We had kind of just been tweaking it the last couple of years and bringing a guy in, moving a piece over here, and I really wanted to start fresh,” Day said. “I wanted to have a system in place so that when something goes wrong there’s an answer in the system, and everyone believes in the system.”

Day and Knowles knew each other by reputation but not personally before the interview process began.

“Going through the whole interview process, there were probably seven guys that I recognized as good fits in terms of what we think schematically, and when I started to cross off some of the names and check the boxes off, Jim was the guy,” Day said.

“There was a lot of conversation with Jim. By the end, I asked to do a couple more Facetimes and a couple more Zooms, and he probably was wondering what else I could want to see. But I wanted to do that because I knew how important this hire was,” he said.

Knowles said he views this season as a fresh start, too.

“I didn’t focus a lot on what happened last year. That’s not my job. My job is to focus on this year,” he said.

The new OSU coordinator describes himself as “just a kid from inner-city Philly who went to an Ivy League school.”

He was an All-Ivy League football player at Cornell and worked on Wall Street for a while after graduation.

“I wasn’t torn (between coaching and Wall Street), I was just tired of being poor and thought, ‘Maybe I should put this Ivy League degree to use and earn some money,’” Knowles said.

But he traded Wall Street for a graduate assistant’s job at a salary of $3,000 a year. After jobs as an assistant coach at Cornell, Western Michigan and Mississippi, he was his alma mater’s coach from 2004 to 2009.

He became Duke’s defensive coordinator in 2010 and was hired for that same position at Oklahoma State in 2018.

“One of the things I’m proud of myself for is having the ability to change over the course of my career. A lot of guys get to be my age in this profession and just say, ‘This is the way I do it. Come hell or high water this is the way I’m going to do it,’” Knowles said.

“Going to the Big 12 at Oklahoma State, that forced me to change. And it worked. Now, coming here, that forces me to re-look at everything I do and how I teach. That’s good, that’s good for me as a coach to grow, to look at a new opportunity and not just come in and say, ‘This is now I do it.’

“You’ve got to have some of that because you’re the leader, but you also have to be open to the challenges, the opponents, what are we doing. The ability to change is really important in my profession.”

Asked if OSU’s players on defense feel pressure because some people think their performance this season will determine if the Buckeyes will play for a national championship, Knowles said, “I don’t think the players feel any pressure because they believe and they’re confident. The challenge for us is just to be the best we can be. That’s all. If we’re the best we can be, we’ll be fine.

“We just have to get better every day. I say, ‘Get better,’ and they say, ‘Every day.’ It’s one of our sayings. I don’t think anybody is feeling pressure, just excitement.”

And if Knowles feels pressure to turn around OSU’s defense in a short time, it doesn’t show.

“There is a special pride for me now to be at an elite school like Ohio State. I tell recruits it took you 16 years to get here. It took me 56 years to get here. It’s definitely a lot of fun,” he said.

Ohio State’s players seem enthusiastic about the changes Knowles has brought. Sophomore defensive end Jack Sawyer says the Buckeyes’ defense has been unleashed.

“When you get a bunch of athletes like we have on the defensive side of the ball and unleash us, a bunch of good stuff happens,” Sawyer said. “We’re going to show everybody what we’re about on the defensive side of the ball this year.”

Senior defensive end Zach Harrison, who has played for three defensive coordinators in four years at OSU said, “It’s definitely different. Coach Knowles brings a different style, a different way of coaching to the defense. I love it. It just allows us to go out there and play.”

Jim Naveau has covered local and high school sports for The Lima News since 1978 and Ohio State football since 1992. His OSU coverage appears in more than 30 newspapers. Naveau, a Miami University graduate, also worked at the Greenville Advocate and the Piqua Daily Call. He has seen every boys state basketball tournament since 1977. Reach him at [email protected] or 567-242-0414.