When Ohio State head coach Ryan Day hired Jim Knowles to be his new defensive coordinator, many in Columbus went to the internet to learn more about Knowles and what he would be bringing to the Buckeyes.
One of the first things that was learned about was the “Leo” position, which is a hybrid weakside defensive end that can also be used as a linebacker and move around a bit. A havoc-wreaker, if you will.
And with anything shiny and new, the Leo has been a popular topic of conversation, especially now that spring football is underway for Ohio State. But even before spring ball, Knowles was asked about it. He was asked about it when he was introduced. He was asked about it as spring ball began. The answers each time were that the Buckeyes would utilize it but that they hadn’t really gotten to the point of discussing yet.
Now, however, they have.
“Yeah, we dropped a bunch of it in today, actually,” Knowles said of the package on Tuesday. “And so my plan has been to push, back off, push, back off. So I’ll download a bunch of information, and then I’ll pull back into calling the same defense for a while, and then download a bunch of information. And we want to be able to get everything on film so we can coach off of it. Yeah, but we put it in today.”
As with any package, there is a process. It gets installed, it gets learned, it gets mastered. Part of that process, however, means that the Leo isn’t actually the Leo. At least not yet.
“I told them we’re not going to call it a Leo, we’re gonna call it a Jack for now because the Leo is the king of the jungle,” Knowles explained. “So when you become the Leo, that’s a big deal because you can do what a D-end does and you can do what a linebacker does. So right now, it’s just more of what we call a Jack position. And yeah, a bunch of guys got a shot at it today.”
Among the players to get a look on Tuesday were sophomore defensive end Jack Sawyer, redshirt sophomore linebacker-turned-defensive end Mitchell Melton, fifth-year senior defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste (albeit in a limited role as he returns from an injury), true freshman defensive end Caden Curry, and fifth-year senior linebacker Palaie Gaoteote.
Individually, those five players possess a wide range of skills and abilities, but they all have something that Knowles is looking for when he is searching for a Jack or Leo.
“I always talk about that short space quickness,” he said. “Ability to disrupt an offensive play, right? Whether you’re at linebacker or you’re coming off the edge, I’m really looking for guys that can be disruptive. Sometimes fit yourself into small spaces. Looking for those hips, right? You’re looking for the guy who can turn the corner, real fluid in his hips and can make plays. Between the tackles. And you’ve got to be tough, right? You got to have a toughness to you because sometimes you have to play in the A gap, B gap. Sometimes you’re gonna have to come off the edge.”
But there is more than just an athletic requirement. The Jack/Leo can be used as a winning card in a number of different hands, so whoever mans the position has to know his job better than most. In fact, he needs to know just about everything in order to keep up with Knowles.
“The football acumen football intelligence is really important, really important to be able to read schemes and handle a bunch of information from me,” Knowles said. “Because I’m going to tell them exactly what to do. That’s my job, I’m going to call them into certain things. But there’s a bunch of choices. ‘Go here, go to the back, go away from the back, go to the tight end, go away from the tight end, go.’ That’s all contained within the call, but there’s a lot of learning that they have to do. But we want to be able to have all that at your disposal. So I think that’s what makes the defense good. It’s my job to fix problems, and that that guy can fix problems because I can call him into whatever I want.”