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Column: Ohio State’s spring game made me a cautiously optimistic in Jim Knowles’ defense

That’s right. An intrasquad scrimmage gave me reason to believe. But the palpable energy and enthusiasm from both players and coaches was a sight for sore eyes.

Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

I know, and I get it; the 2022 Ohio State spring football game was little more than a team preview and a potentially false preview, at that. Written-in-pen starters were missing and/or played very little, much of the depth chart was thrown out in favor of experimentation, and at the end of the day, we’re still talking about players and coaches who are not yet familiar with each other.

The scrimmage was more of an early dress rehearsal, designed to get the juices flowing a little bit, see new players in a quasi-game environment, and put on a show for fans. And you know what? They got me!

I found the spring game to be highly entertaining, and it gave me an even greater sense of optimism, particularly for this new Ohio State defense.

Yes, I am the same person who just last week suggested doing away with all spring games. And no, Saturday’s results do not suddenly make me a believer that the game is an incredibly meaningful exercise — or that this Buckeye defense is a reincarnation of the ’86 Bears... I’m still somewhere in the middle.

But I was excited by what we saw on the defensive side of the ball. The raw energy was relatively similar to what we witnessed during the Kerry Coombs era, but there seemed to be a greater purpose and plan behind what was happening on the field. Few players looked to be lost or out on an island. They were playing with aggression and taking the action to the offense, rather than reacting to every snap and being forced to play on their heels.

It was a positive development for a unit that is looking to bounce back from — let’s face it — an embarrassing 2021 season. I believe new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and company are going to make that happen. This past Saturday gave me an even greater sense of belief.

The spring game scoring format definitely tipped the scale of win probability in favor of the offense, but 34-26 almost feels like a win for the defense. In fact, I am declaring them the winner, as decided by one lunatic. Granted, the offense was more or less going through the motions, and Ryan Day decided to keep TreVeyon Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba (among others) on the sideline for most of the game, but the defense needed a moral victory. And as silly as it might sound, I think Saturday’s result was exactly that. The ceiling for Knowles’ unit is considered to be much lower than that of its offensive counterpart, and frankly, that’s fair. But the spring game showed that his defense might be able to close the gap eventually, or at least play a little bit of catch-up.

Knowles’ group more than held its own against three potential Heisman candidates. That number grows to five if we’re including Evan Pryor and Joe Royer (don’t @ me), but I think it’s best to hold off on that for now.

The Buckeyes aren’t going to see a comparable collection of offensive talent this season — at least not until they make another College Football Playoff appearance. You could say the playcalling was vanilla (because it was), and bring up that Day was not out for blood or to embarrass his own defense, but wasn’t there still a part of you that believed C.J. Stroud would throw a handful of touchdowns without breaking a sweat? Maybe that was just me.

Let’s be honest with each other... Who else had Joe Royer becoming the next Travis Kelce?
Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Scheme-wise, we got a preview of different looks from the defense, which is something Ohio State fans have been calling for (for years). In recent seasons, there seemed to be more of an effort to put players into a figurative box and not allow them to be football players. They were seen as filling a positional need or only capable of playing one role.

Knowles and his defensive staff appear much more willing to move guys around and experiment. It won’t be a total freelance experience out there, but we saw DBs causing havoc all over the place and linemen who appeared to be very comfortable dropping back in coverage (more on that later).

The Buckeyes need — and have needed — the element of surprise to make a return. The Oregon Ducks and TTUN called them out for their defensive predictability last season, and both teams took full advantage of it. Knowles seems determined to create confusion for opposing offenses, which is something that he and Day have both talked about and acknowledged as part of the improvement process.

Xs and Os aside, I think fans also have every reason to be excited about personnel. I’m still attempting to practice restraint here — I don’t believe that Kye Stokes is the next Ed Reed (yet) — but I have to say that certain players looked great in this setting. Guys looked like playmakers... which were missing from last year’s unit.

Jack Sawyer played well in the “Jack” role, which I’m sure is destiny and not a cruel, false instance of irony. Sawyer’s bash brother, J.T. Tuimoloau, gave us a reminder of his all-world ceiling. Jordan Hancock looked like a player who will force the OSU coaches to play him, and true freshman Stokes stole the show.

Not to say that these guys will appear on future All-Big Ten lists just because they performed well in a scrimmage, but again, their performances should at least create more of that cautious optimism I keep bringing up. They join more-established players such as Denzel Burke and Zach Harrison, who we are all hoping to reach their full potential.

In the end (September), we have no idea what the finished defensive product will look like... not even the coaches know at this point. We are months away from depth charts being set, and there are roughly a million things that can happen between now and then. But the spring game gave us a reminder of what these players are capable of. The defense is littered with high 4-star and 5-star talents in need of time and coaching — neither of which was available (to many) last year, for one reason or another.

Motivated by last year’s results, and with a new coaching staff in place, the Ohio State defense seems poised for a comeback. There is a long way to do, but we can still get excited about small steps forwards. That’s progress, baby! Go Bucks!