It wasn’t long into last season that it was clear Ohio State head coach Ryan Day would have to make some serious changes on the defensive side of the ball. The struggles against Oregon opened the discussion and the loss to Michigan ended it.
In the days between the Michigan game and the Rose Bowl, Day hired Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to eventually fix the Buckeye defense.
Knowles was arguably the hottest coordinator on the market, so his hire was made with great excitement. The installation of his defense this spring brought constant questions and concerns, which is normal for a new defense (or any defense at Ohio State).
Known as a “nickel defense,” Knowles’ preferred defensive system features five defensive backs on the majority of snaps, even on running downs. Any 4-2-5 defense will lead to concerns about whether or not it can defend the run. After all, with five defensive backs on the field, that means there will only be two linebackers playing at a time.
With the way the passing game has taken off in football, having an extra defensive back on the field for most snaps makes sense. But the opponent isn’t going to throw the ball on every down, so the nickel defense still has to be able to hold up against the run.
“Nickel’s been around forever,” Knowles said this spring. “I think a lot of people now are looking how to use it more in normal situations because it fits so well with everything you’re getting in terms of the receiver talent and the quarterback talent. Now can you hold up against the run? I think the more people are finding out that, ‘Yeah, we can hold up against the run.'”
Knowles’ Oklahoma State defense was fifth nationally against the run last year, allowing just 87.6 yards rushing per game. For a comparison, Ohio State’s defense ranked 28th, allowing 126.8 yards per game.
Running a nickel in the Big XII is one thing, but can it be done in the Big Ten?
Well, the Buckeyes started a nickel defense every game last year except for the Rose Bowl, so it’s not like Knowles is bringing in a foreign concept. He’s just bringing in a better one.
Ohio State has tinkered with a nickel defense as its base defense over the years, including the addition of the Bullet in 2019. That position ended up being manned very well by linebacker Pete Werner rather than a safety as intended.
In 2014, they had a supremely athletic linebacker in Darron Lee playing a “walk-out” Sam linebacker position. Under Jim Tressel, the hybrid nickel spot was known as the Star and handled by a big safety.
“The nickel started as a fifth DB and then it moved to people started calling their Sam linebackers ‘nickel Sam’ or whatever,” Knowles explained. “And to me, that didn’t make any sense. All you were doing is you were moving a bigger guy out kind of in space, and sometimes putting them in a bad position, but you weren’t really changing things from an offensive perspective in terms of how they attack you. All you were doing is just walking one of your linebackers out there a little bit, but they could still attack you. I think when you have a true nickel who’s a DB, almost a third corner, it changes everything for the offense.”
The nickel defender in Knowles’ defense plays over the slot receiver and even though he may be listed as a safety, he has to be more corner than safety.
“Gotta be able to cover slot,” he said of the nickel spot. “Gotta be able to cover a slot man-to-man and then you’ve got to be able to play all the zones and do everything that we do with it.”
Knowles was happy that his starting nickel for the past two years at Oklahoma State followed him to Ohio State. When Tanner McCalister entered the transfer portal, it didn’t take long for the two to connect. Knowles has talked about McCalister as a huge help in getting his defense installed, but more importantly than that, he is a versatile defender who has experience defending the run.
The Buckeyes are going to face plenty of run-first offenses that will be playing a running back and two tight ends (“12 personnel”), but that doesn’t mean McCalister will be watching from the sidelines when that happens.
“He did it a bunch,” Knowles said. “He did it a bunch. You go back and watch our film at Oklahoma State, he stayed on the field a bunch in 12 personnel because a lot of people were taking 12 and making it into look like 11.”
The benefit of the nickel is that it makes a defense more versatile, provided it can stop the run. If it can’t, then a third linebacker will come into the game, but that leaves the defense more susceptible to the pass.
There is no one perfect fix, but a nickel defense that can hold up against the run is a pretty good start. Defending the run with five DBs won’t be anything new to the current Buckeyes. They had success against the run for much of last season, but they also saw what their nickel defense was put through against Michigan and other run-first teams. The Wolverines averaged a punishing 7.2 yards per carry on 41 attempts in last year’s game, as Ohio State’s defense fielded five defensive backs on almost every snap. It was a demoralizing way to end the regular season.
That performance against Michigan won’t easily be forgotten, and now it’s Jim Knowles’ job to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I think people are finding out that the nickel can still stay on the field,” Knowles said. “Maybe you don’t line him up right over the tight end, but you kind of put him into more of a position where he can be a factor and still maintain the edge in the run game. But he doesn’t have to get in there and slug it out with a with a tackle or a guard.”