The last three times Ohio State has overhauled its defense during the offseason, things have gone pretty well.
In 2014, Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash to install the quarters defense. The process started early and went late, but from week to week the results kept improving. When it was all said and done, the Buckeyes were national champs.
In 2016, Greg Schiano took over for Chris Ash and made some adjustments. With Schiano and Luke Fickell running the defense, the Buckeye defensive line tormented quarterbacks and free safety Malik Hooker cleaned up every mess that came his way. That defense lost 31-0 to Clemson in the playoffs but they weren’t really to blame.
In 2019, Ryan Day brought in Jeff Hafley to install a single-high defense, which was also very successful. With the incredible secondary of Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette, Jordan Fuller, and Shaun Wade — along with defensive end Chase Young and others — the Buckeyes’ defense finished No. 1 in the nation in yards per play allowed (4.13) and yards per game allowed (259.7). They didn’t win a national championship, but they were plenty good enough. Unfortunately, not even the nation’s best defense can stop the nation’s worst replay official.
The Buckeyes are once again shifting defensive schemes, but based on history, it would seem that Ohio State is in for a pretty big step forward in new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ 4-2-5 defense. Granted, the defenses mentioned above either had a Bosa brother or a Chase Young rushing the passer, and this Ohio State defense will have neither.
But the show must go on and so also must the installation of Knowles’ defense.
“Yeah, I think we got accomplished more than I could have hoped for,” Knowles said last week about how far he had gotten into that installation project. “I think our players were very open to the process, very eager to learn. And they pick things up at a rapid pace. I was really impressed with the guys we have and their football intelligence.”
As with all new situations, the process of teaching and learning can sometimes hit some slowdowns because things may feel overwhelming. The more the players saw, however, the more they understood the nuances and what was for show and what wasn’t.
“You know, they were able to learn that we do a lot of things. It’s simple, but yet it looks complex,” Knowles said. “And I think they were able to get into the heart of it and get excited about it and say, ‘Okay, we can show a lot of different looks.’ But it was easy for them to learn. It can be overwhelming in the beginning because it looks like a lot, but when you get into the nuts and bolts of it, they were able to follow along at a rapid pace. And that’s a credit to our players too. I mean, they soaked it up and they really wanted to learn, and I think now they got a taste of how good the system can work.”
Knowles has talked about his role as a teacher and nowhere is that more important than in the installation of a brand new defense. And while he has lesson plans like all teachers, he didn’t have a plan for how quickly everything would be put into place.
“No, you can’t. I mean, when you do that, I think that’s when you get in trouble,” he explained. “You have to go at their pace, and you have to teach at the pace of the students. So yeah, I have plans. I have a layout of how I want to do it, but how fast I do it is based on how quickly they learn.”
Knowles wanted to get enough of his defense installed this spring that there would be video for everybody to learn off of during the summer. He didn’t want to keep teaching off of his Oklahoma State tapes. In the end, he got what he wanted, and it was because he followed the only plan that has always worked for him.
“Well, you start slowly and then you pick up the pace based on what the guys can handle,” he said. “And they could handle — they just overall as a group, I’m sure it’s a function of the culture that coach Day has built — they have a football intelligence. So when they have a football intelligence about them, and they’re interested in learning and they have open minds, then you just start to pick it up. You start to pick it up, and the more they’re handling, the more you give them. So you have to go at the speed of the players, and I thought we had a bunch of guys who learned at a rapid pace.”