One of the more entertaining aspect of new Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ defense is how active and disruptive his linebackers are throughout the course of a game.
After all, if you’re only going to play two at a time, you may as well make the most of it.
Knowles doesn’t ask much of the position. He just asks that they be able to run, cover, blitz, tackle, recognize, anticipate, and react. No big deal.
Some evidence of this requirement was seen in the offseason when the Buckeyes landed a transfer from Arizona State running back Chip Trayanum. Ohio State is set at running back, which is why they brought Trayanum in as a linebacker. The Buckeyes knew him through recruiting in high school where they also recruited him to play linebacker. He is athletic and versatile, which is exactly what Knowles is looking for at the position.
“Well, he has to be multiple. The idea of being an inside or outside linebacker, no. Because you’re going to see them both inside and outside,” Knowles said of his linebackers. “You’re going to see them in man coverage and zone coverage. You’re going to see them blitz inside, you’re going to see them blitz outside. So a guy who has all kinds of football skills. One, that’s important, but two, the mental understanding, and that’s why they do get a lot of stats because we put them in position to make plays. And a lot of times we funnel things to them and the safeties, and they’re there and they got to get the job done. So they have to understand the scheme and where they fit.”
Knowles is exactly right about his stat-sheet-stuffing linebackers. Even though his scheme only has two starting linebackers, last year those two starting linebackers at Oklahoma State — Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper — produced 26 tackles for loss. The entire group of Buckeye linebackers hasn’t even reached that number since 2019.
Not everybody can play linebacker in this system, or at least not full time. It takes a very talented athlete to handle all of the responsibilities and then also to capitalize on them. Interestingly, when you look back at the recruiting profiles of both Rodriguez and Harper, they weren’t even linebackers in high school. Rodriguez was a three-star option quarterback and safety. Harper was a running back, receiver, and edge rusher in a 3-4 defense. Last year they combined for 226 tackles. The last time two Buckeye linebackers even came close to that number was 2015 when Raekwon McMillan and Joshua Perry combined for 224 tackles.
Clearly, the evidence shows that this can be a very fun and productive defense for a linebacker.
How have the Buckeyes enjoyed it?
“I don’t know, you’d have to ask them,” Knowles said. “But I think that they liked it, because we talked a lot about free tackles. And that’s a great thing for a linebacker because a lot of times you’re gonna have a chance to make that tackle without a blocker. And that’s what we want. Right? That’s good for a linebacker.”
While nothing is set yet as to how the linebacker depth chart is going to shake out this year for the Buckeyes, it seemed evident that redshirt juniors Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg left spring ball as the favorites. Last year’s starting middle linebacker Cody Simon may have something to say about that in fall camp, however, since he missed spring ball recovering from an injury.
Knowles doesn’t yet know precisely who will be lining up where and how often, but based on what he saw this spring, he knows that he at least has some pretty good options.
“Yeah, I think that in terms of the actual playing time, who’s gonna get the majority of the snaps. I think there’s a lot of good candidates,” he said. “But how that’s all going to shake out in terms of who plays the most, who has some specialty things that they can do and help the team, packaging where they can go. I still think there’s a lot to be determined in terms of the actual snaps and rep counts that come up in the game.”