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Burning Questions: What are realistic expectations for Jim Knowles’ 2022 Ohio State defense?

Jim Knowles has worked his magic at his previous stops, but he won’t be afforded the same amount of time in Columbus.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 16 Ohio State Spring Game Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the major storylines of Ohio State’s 2021 season was the disappointing display on the defensive side of the ball. This was the second consecutive year with an underwhelming performance under Kerry Coombs as the defensive coordinator, which led to massive in-season changes with the coaching staff — and even bigger changes in the offseason.

Ryan Day replaced three coaches on the defensive staff and made the high profile hire with Jim Knowles named the new defensive coordinator. When changes of this magnitude are made, this often leads to significant expectations for the new coordinator and his staff. For the Buckeyes, the success of this staff in year one can be the difference between a national championship or another year of disappointing results.

Knowles has worked his magic at his last two stops, but those results did take some time, which is the one thing he does not have. This leads to the ‘Burning Question’: what are realistic expectations for Jim Knowles’ defense in the 2022 season?

Ohio State’s 2021 defense by the numbers

Last season gave Ohio State fans a harsh reminder of how fast and how far defenses can fall. In a similar vein to the 2018 season, the defense just never seemed to put it together, ranking in the bottom half of the country in most of the main statistical categories. This was also the undoing for the Buckeyes when they played arguably the two best teams on the schedule. This is what Knowles has been brought in to fix.

When Ohio State was unable to stop the run, this led to significant issues. The numbers over the season were not as bad as the few games that really stood out. The defense only gave up 3.7 yards per rush (27th in the country) and 127.8 yards per game (24th). Even though these stats are’t necessarily bad, they do not tell the whole story. In their most marquee games, they gave up 297 yards on 39 carries against Michigan and 269 yards on 38 carries against Oregon. In both matchups they gave up over seven yards per carry, which just will not get it done. This is exactly how Notre Dame will try to attack in Week One.

Through the air, the Buckeyes faired much worse over the course of the season, and definitely had their fair share of bad games in this department. Teams were able to complete 61.61% of their passes against the Buckeyes, which was good for 74th in the country. The Buckeyes also ranked 117th in completions allowed, 87th in yards allowed per game, and were ranked 44th in sack percentage. This led to some frustrating series where Ohio State would actually perform well on first and second down, but they would inevitably give up a first down whenever the opposing offense decided to pass.

This is a lot to fix. These stats are also a major reason the Buckeyes have three new defensive coaches on the staff. Last season, if the offense wasn’t perfect, Ohio State often let teams hang around or lost games. If Knowles can work his magic, the ceiling is raised and expectations will be at national championship-or-bust levels for the Buckeyes.

Jim Knowles’ previous first seasons

Knowles has made three stops as a defensive coordinator and one as a head coach before his role with the Buckeyes. Each of those stops should help his adjustment to Ohio State, even if none of the three defensive coordinator roles were at quite this level and the head coaching role was in the Ivy League at Cornell. Knowles has had to maximize limited rosters and has had limited recruiting pools at all four of his previous stops. Even with those obstacles, he has still been able to churn out respectable defenses.

But year one has not always netted immediate results. Knowles is well aware of the expectations when asked about the pressure of immediate results saying, “It’s not lost on me that I don’t have four years here. This program is ready to win every single game right now, and we have to get the defense to that level.”

This is why year one is so important to look at, starting at Western Michigan. Knowles took over a defense that was ranked fourth in the country in the year 2000. In his first ever stop as a defensive coordinator, the defense dropped to 48th in points per game. Once again, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Western Michigan came off arguably their best season in school history, and the program started a downward trajectory under head coach Gary Darnell. If this is the case in 2022 for the Buckeyes, Knowles might not have long and fingers will start pointing at Day for not figuring out the defensive side of the ball.

In his first season at Cornell, the defense was not only solid, but the only reason the team had any success at all. His team gave up up 18.1 points per game and was one of the better run stopping units giving up only 2.9 yards per rush. If those were stats for the Ohio State defense in 2022, they would rank in the top-10 in both in the country. At Duke, they were possibly the worst team in the ACC, and gave up the 109th ranked points per game. Oklahoma State was not much better. This might not be what Ohio State fans want to hear, and this is the reality of taking over failing teams.

Knowles is not a miracle worker, but there is a reason he has been one of the most successful defensive minds at every stop along his way. Once he has the talent that fits his system and the players who can play the way he needs, the defense takes off. Knowles has taken on rebuilding projects in every facet and has netted results. This year, he has the most talent he’s ever had at his disposal. Expectations are high, Knowles is aware of that and everything up to this point should give Ohio State fans confidence that year one should be better than the previous two seasons.

Ohio State’s 2022 defense expectations

Now the real question is how much better should be expected from the Buckeyes in 2022? The Buckeyes have a ton of experience in the back end of the defense, a linebacker unit with raw potential that grew a lot throughout the 2021 season, and one of the most talented defensive line units in the country based on recruiting rankings.

Let’s look at the last time Ohio State went from one of the worst defenses in the country to one of the best over, from 2018 to the 2019 season. In 2018, the Buckeyes ranked 40th in Defense Fremeau Efficiency Index ratings (DFEI) which represents the per-possession scoring advantage each defense would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent, per Football Outsiders. The next season, under new wunderkind defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, Ohio State went all the way up to No. 2 in the country in DFEI. With talent in place, massive improvement is possible. The Buckeyes were 42nd last year in that category, meaning they will need a similar jump to match the transformation in 2019.

This expectation can be seen as unfair, but even last year there were moments that the talent of the defense shined. In the second half against Utah, Ohio State arguably played their most physical defense of the season. The Buckeyes also slowed down Heisman finalist Kenneth Walker and the Michigan State downfield passing attack during the regular season. Now, these are small successes in the grand scheme of things, but if Knowles can get this group playing consistently, the floor is already a borderline playoff team.

Expecting Ohio State to magically have Georgia’s defense is probably not realistic, but they don’t need the defense to be that great. When you have an elite offense, the margin for error is much higher. If they can limit teams from extending drives, converting red zone trips into touchdowns, and give the offense favorable field position, the defense will have done its job.

Improving third down efficiency and limiting red zone scoring will be the most pivotal parts of if this defense can elevate to the highest level. Looking at his past season at Oklahoma State should get Buckeye fans excited, but there also have to be growing pains considered with staff turnover. If Knowles can manage the growing pains early and the defense can improve throughout the year, a top-25 defense should be reasonable. With improvement from start to finish and an elite offense, that should be enough to meet the lofty goals of Buckeye Nation.

To close this out, Knowles has worked his magic at his previous stops, but at every stop prior to Ohio State he has been able to enact a multi-year plan to build a successful unit. This won’t be the case for the Buckeyes. This upcoming season, a lot of the redemption will be on the backs of the defense, and Knowles is well aware of the pressure that comes with that. There is a reason he took this challenge on, and a big reason is the national championship possibilities that come from coaching at a place like Ohio State.

Ohio State’s roster has talent and has incredible amounts of potential for Knowles to work with. If he can mold the young players and maximize players that haven’t quite hit their ceiling yet — like Zach Harrison — there should be significant improvement in 2022. Expecting perfection is unfair, as there will be growing pains, but as long as Knowles doesn’t have a game that looks like the matchups against Oregon, Tulsa, and Michigan, the defense is in a better place.

To answer the burning question, this defense should be a top-25 defense in the country and could be playing at a national championship level by the end of the regular season. If Knowles can have strong performances against Notre Dame and Michigan, he’ll have a lot of momentum to move forward with. At the end of the day, winning those games is what truly matters. The rest comes with it, and if Knowles’ defense can meet the lofty expectations fans have and become a top-25 defense in the country, Ohio State can be holding up a trophy in January.