If you are reading this, or if you don’t live under a rock, it’s safe to assume that you’re aware that Ohio State has hired a new defensive coordinator. Jim Knowles, who led the Oklahoma State Cowboys to arguably the second-best defense in college football this season, has agreed to join the OSU staff starting on Jan. 2. Unless you caught the Big 12 Championship game you may not know much about Knowles or what makes his defense special; that’s what we’re here for. This is Part 2 of a film study analyzing Knowles and what makes him special.
In Part 1, Chris Renne looked at the alignment, blitzes and pass coverage that OK State utilized under Knowles. In this article, I am going to break down the Cowboys’ run defense and what you can expect to see in Columbus — hopefully for many years to come.
As a quick recap from Part 1, Knowles is a mad schematic scientist. His defense is technically a 4-2-5, but it’s really a hybrid 3-3-5/4-2-5 mix with a unique position called the Leo. The Leo position is a hybrid edge rusher and outside linebacker. He can play standing up, put his hand in the dirt, and move around the line and formation. This is important in this scheme because Knowles is known for disguising his coverages and pressures, and that is made easier with positional flexibility.
In a moment of honesty, I expected to break down two or three games for this film study, but was so impressed with the tape from the Cowboys’ upset — at the time — over No. 25 Kansas State, all the film is from that game. Oklahoma State led the country in tackles for a loss and that is largely because of four specific traits: aggression, discipline, pressure and teamwork.
Some fans, misguidedly, are concerned that Knowles won’t transition well to the Big Ten, because the Big 12 is largely a passing league and he will need to stop the run to be success in his new role. Well, these six plays that should give you confidence in Ohio State’s ability to stop the run under their new defensive coordinator.
The first video is ofKansas State’s first drive of the game and they decide to go for it on 4th and 1. KSU is in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). Knowles counters that by playing man-coverage and leaving six men in the box. Instead of a traditional alignment, the Cowboys come out with five men on the line of scrimmage, one linebacker three yards back and the lone corner who doesn’t have a man assignment looks to be blitzing.
Predicting the run, Knowles blitzes both the slot and outside corners in an all-out run blitz. Now, if the offense guesses right, this aggressiveness can be used against the defense, but it shows both Knowles’ commitment to stopping the run and his belief in his game planning.
KSU picks up the first down, but Knowles commits nine players to the run on this play showcasing his aggressive play calling.
In the next video, KSU is backed up near their own end zone with the ball on the six-yard line. Knowles once again lines up in man coverage, but this time his defense is aligned in a more traditional set with six men in the box, four on the line, and two linebackers at depth.
This play is a mistake by the offense, they fumble the ball, which is not due to anything the defense did, but I want to highlight how many defenders immediately see the ball on the ground and attack. This play showcases, discipline (all 11 players’ eyes are in the right place) and football intelligence (all players recognize that the ball is on the ground and quickly react). Three players immediately move to recover the ball, and four end up there by the end of the play.
One of the biggest problems with Ohio State’s defense the last two season was that despite their speed, they played slow. That does not appear to be an issue with Knowles’ defense he puts them in position to play fast and therefore make plays.
In this clip, Kansas State has four wide receivers on the field; they’re all aligned near the numbers to spread out the defense. Offenses do this to provide a numbers advantage in the run game. Yet under Knowles, Oklahoma State employed a man-heavy scheme allowing six men to stay in the box to defend the run with a single safety over the top to either help in run support or defend the deep pass. Knowles’ trust in his corners allows his front-seven defenders to focus on one thing and one thing only — stopping the run.
The three traditional linemen penetrate immediately and reset the line of scrimmage. The Leo — who is unblocked — scraps over the top and makes immediate contact with the running back. To the earlier point of teamwork, once they read run, both linebackers, the safety, and the outside corner all converge on the running back.
The Cowboys rarely missed tackles in this game, but even if they did, there were multiple players there to cover up the mistake. Rarely does a defender make a solo tackle in Knowles’ unit, tackling under Ohio State’s new D-Cor is always a team effort.
In the next play, Kansas State is forced into another 3rd and short situation. This time they line up in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers). In short yardage situations, a trend is starting to emerge; Knowles plays tight man-coverage and due to the heavy personnel, the Cowboys have eight players within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
Before the snap, the Wildcats send a wide receiver in motion. So, the other OSU travels with the motion instead of passing it off. Therefore, the outside corner shifts down to replace his teammate, becoming an additional run defender.
The quarterback fakes the handoff and keeps the ball himself. Due to the motion, there is a gap and an open lane to the end zone. But, because under Knowles everyone plays the run — including the outside corner who previously had man responsibilities — despite the fact that the Wildcats pick up a first down, the defensive aggression, and quick trigger by the corner, stops a potential touchdown.
Under Ohio State’s previous scheme, this quarterback is getting to the second level and we’re praying someone catches him from behind to stop a big play touchdown.
The pattern continues on this clip. It’s 3rd and short and Knowles calls man coverage and packs the box with defenders; in this case nine to be exact. Kansas State sends their tight end in motion to bring an extra run blocker, but it makes no difference. The Cowboys are a disciplined defense, they ignore the motion, read their keys, and trigger on the run.
The defensive line gets penetration and resets the line of scrimmage allowing the linebackers and safeties the ability to roam freely. The result? Another tackle for a loss and the ball back to their offense.
In this last clip, I want to highlight another weakness from this year’s Ohio State defense that may become a strength under Knowles. The 2020 Buckeye defense was vulnerable all season to running plays to the outside, especially when coupled with motion. Ohio State has had the tendency to be out of place on these types of plays; some defenders flowing toward the motion and others toward the ball carrier, which allowed big runs more than anyone would find acceptable.
In this play, the Wildcats send a player in motion, trying to confuse the defense, but once again their discipline shows. At the snap, no defender is tricked, and they all flow as a unit to the ball carrier. The defensive end sets the edge and four different Cowboys end up assisting in the tackle short of the line to gain.
In conclusion, despite the pass happy nature of the Big 12, Knowles’ defense is exceptional at stopping the run. Similar to his pass defense, he changes the alignment of his players, causing confusion for the opposing offense. Knowles relies on man coverage to free his players up to defend the run, especially in short yardage situations.
The Buckeyes’ new coordinator is an aggressive play-caller who trusts his players, and because of that, they adopt his aggressiveness when they are on the field. Knowles’ players are disciplined, they create penetration, and consistently reset the line of scrimmage.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly on that side of the ball, his players consistently play with teamwork. They know what their roles are and trust each other to be in the right spot at the right time
This film study is just the beginning of us learning what Jim Knowles will bring to Columbus and why he was so sought after by big programs. But after taking a deeper look at the Cowboys, I for one am excited for what Knowles will bring to the buckeyes!
Unleashing Knowles’ aggressive approach and schematic genius on a roster full of four and five-star players could be really special.