As the football season approaches, the offseason questions have been asked, and now comes the final approach to the first Saturday of college football. Over the course of the offseason for the Ohio State Buckeyes, the main questions revolve around if the defense can be better this year. This is the question Jim Knowles has been brought in to answer.
The Buckeyes under Kerry Coombs failed to meet the expectations of the fan base and what should be expected from a defense with national championship aspirations. The major issues were the oversimplified schemes used, lack of adjustment, and inconsistent preparation. Throughout the 2020 and 2021, the Buckeyes stuck to their base 4-2-5 defense, utilizing one high safety coverages like Cover-1 and Cover-3, and wondered how teams could figure them out so easily.
Last season, Matt Barnes took over the play calling duties after the Tulsa match up, and the Buckeyes added a few 2-High cover looks. Once again, those base looks did not have a lot of safety movement, and also did not have a lot checks in the case of motion, leading to disorganization. This lack of identity and simplicity led to an incredibly underwhelming defensive performance by the 2021 Buckeyes.
The reason the base scheme of a defense is so important and why the organization of the scheme matters is because everything else builds off of it. This is where Jim Knowles comes into play. There will be similar coverages and similar base alignment, but the difference will be in how flexible Knowles can make this defense from their base look.
With the small tweaks Knowles is bringing and the changing emphasis on attacking in multiple ways from the same look, this alone should help improve the defensive results. Teams were able to take advantage of the overly structured and limited defense of the previous regime. By looking at pre-snap alignment, this will show that the changes aren’t overarching, but more so in the small details, which are the difference between middle of the pack and the best in the country.
Ohio State’s 2021 Defensive Alignment
The Buckeyes under head coach Ryan Day have built the Ohio State defense on the Pete Carroll Seattle Seahawks Cover-3 base. This is a simple defensive structure that relies on an elite pass rush and disciplined defensive backs to maintain the integrity of the back end. When all the parts are working cohesively, this defense can be vaunting to get past. But in the two year under Coombs this was not the case.
In the first snapshot, we see Ohio State’s alignment against Oregon’s Trips 11-personnel. Looking at the safeties first pre-snap, the short side safety is already giving away the rotation if the play is a pass, and also highlighting where he will be in his run fill responsibility. This allows Oregon to have a clean pre-snap look, as well as gives them opportunity to check to another look to attack the alignment. The other concerning aspect is the spacing of the linebackers. They are over the offensive guard and tackle, respectively, which leaves the numbers bare on one side of the formation.
Overall, these are small details pre-snap, but this gives good offenses easy keys to read.
In the second pre-snap snapshot, the safety is in the box and the linebackers have more spacing. The issue now is the numbers in the box have changed, and now there is a ton of space to work the running back out of the backfield. There will be limited safety help to the short side because of the trips to the field. Ohio State has lost this play before the snap, and this is totally an aspect that is within the coaching staff’s control. The coverage is a 1-high safety look, and there are seven blockers for seven players in the run game. These types of looks put the Buckeye defense in detrimental positions before the ball was even snapped.
Oklahoma State’s 2021 Defensive Alignment
To learn more about what Jim Knowles is bringing to Columbus from his time in Stillwater, at Oklahoma State we can see a different level of organization.
In the screen grab below, we get the same defensive alignment with a 4-2-5 look. Looking at the safeties first, they are on different levels, but there is a lot more flexibility in what defense can do. Looking at the alignment of the corners, this can easily be a 2-high or 1-high look, The arrows show where the safeties rotate, but overall there is no definitive tell by the safeties. The next aspect is the linebackers are at the same level and the corners are as well, giving a hard to read shell.
With the safety rotation and linebacker fills, the responsibilities for both run and pass are still easy to get to for the defenders while still giving the offense more trouble pre-snap.
In the next picture, after the snap Iowa State runs a play action pass. Looking at the linebacker, he has run responsibility to the gap he is filling, but Knowles has also made him responsible for the running back in the passing game. After identifying that the running back is not a threat, his next job is as an additional rusher. The defense ends up in man coverage. The short side safety rotates over to the middle, similarly to what the Buckeyes did in the play above, but the organization of the secondary leaves no easy window throws post snap.
With the linebacker having the running back taken care of, the boundary side corner doesn’t hesitate to follow his receiver, and we also see how every receiving target is accounted for.
This level of organization allows for a flexible defense, but the difference between the Knowles 4-2-5 and the Coombs 4-2-5 is every offensive option is accounted for. The run fill lanes are all taken care of, and there is not a receiver without coverage. Pre-snap the offense was not able to get a clean read, and this play leads to an incompletion by the offense.
Ohio State’s Spring Game Alignment
The 2022 Spring Game gives an early look into Knowles’ base defensive look for his Ohio State defense. Knowles did not get overly exotic in pre-snap alignments in the scrimmage, but the basic structure is the first key to a successful defense. The base look is what a team plays in the most, so being great and organized in that look is the difference between an average and great defense.
Compared to the 2021 defense, the first noticeable aspect is the safety and linebacker alignment. The safeties are on the same level and the linebackers are even with each other on the same level as well while also having space between them. Against doubles 11-personnel, this makes it hard for the offense to identify the strength of the defense. The other aspect is the run fill lanes are, once again, easily identifiable. If there was a line in front of each player, that would easily work for having every run lane covered.
After the snap, the safeties both come into the box because the play is a run. With the mentioned gap responsibilities, the positioning in the run fills is straight forward. The right side defensive tackle gets doubled and the linebacker play side should be filling the new space aggressively, which in this case isn’t happening. The Buckeyes are in man coverage and the corners/nickel are playing their responsibility, showing how their alignment allows for comfortable coverage opportunities.
The Buckeyes are still a work in progress, but the organization compared to 2021 has already improved in quite a few ways. Even though there will still be some growing pains in the structure and post-snap responsibility, the organization of the defense should raise the floor of results quite a bit. Knowles has already organized the defense, now getting the players to play fast and hard is the next step in the process.
There are no easy fixes in college football, as the Buckeyes learned last year with their patchwork defense in the second half of the season. The one aspect that needs to be taken into consideration though is the 2021 defense was disorganized and simple. On pre-snap alignment, looking at one play against Oregon the cracks were apparent, and the results against teams that can take advantage of those cracks showed up in the loss column.
Knowles probably doesn’t need to get as crazy with the talent he has at Ohio State, but just the basic organization pre-snap should limit the big plays the Buckeyes gave up in 2021. Even though the players will still need to make the plays, Knowles having them more organized will allow them to focus and maximize their responsibilities on a play-to-play basis.
Now this is only the start, and the real moment of truth will be against Notre Dame come September, but looking at the level of organization and flexibility compared to 2021 should give fans something to be excited about. For the Buckeyes to be successful this season, the organization of the defense will make them a much more formidable group. With week one on the horizon, Knowles will finally get to show Buckeye Nation what his defenses are made of.