It’s no secret that the defense is what has held Ohio State back the last few years as a whole. Offensively, Ryan Day has kept the Buckeyes humming, and while that has certainly been good enough to win a national title, it’s been their counterparts on defense that have basically prevented any chance of that.
In today’s college football landscape, offenses have arguably never been better, but the defense needs to do it’s part in keeping a team in the game. Last year alone, fans saw what an average at best defense did for Ohio State. Two games were lost, and without the stellar offensive production in the Rose Bowl, it could have even been three games.
Choosing Kerry Coombs as the defensive coordinator prior to the 2020 season was just the wrong hire, to be blunt. The 2021 season was just further proof that while he was beloved in Columbus for the development of his defensive backs, Coombs was not the right fit to run the defense from a scheme standpoint. Unfortunately, that was evident in Ohio State’s biggest matchups a season ago.
Insert the hiring of Jim Knowles, and immediately it was like the defense had finally been saved. Sure, not one snap of his defense has been on the field yet for Ohio State, but his track record and previous success at places with lesser talent give you the feeling like this was the fix the Buckeyes needed. He’s a true schemer on that side of the ball, and many times does more with less. His previous stop at Oklahoma State is a great example, where his defense was far superior to Ohio State’s with significantly less four and five-stars on the field.
For all the good, is there some bad?
From all the great things Knowles brings to the program, there’s still been at least some recent concerns about the recruiting successes at his position. A linebacker coach at heart, Knowles’ recruiting efforts weren’t exactly expected to wow anyone, as he’s much more of a scheme guy than a recruiter. But at Ohio State, every position coach is expected to pull their weight when it comes to getting after elite players in addition to developing them once they’re on campus.
The beginning of the 2023 cycle for the Buckeyes saw now-Georgia commit Troy Bowles as the top target at the linebacker position, and for some time it really looked like Ohio State was in prime position to land his eventual commitment. After Knowles came aboard, much of the focus shifted to his top guy, Tackett Curtis. With how many times Knowles was in Louisiana to see Curtis, you saw the writing on the wall that he was clearly the new OSU DC’s top priority on the trail.
Seeing Bowles commit to Georgia stung, but it wasn’t a big surprise for Ohio State recruiting followers. The trend moved toward Georgia months ago, and while the Buckeyes were still always in the mix, the Bulldogs proved to be in a better spot. The saving grace so to speak was that the aforementioned Curtis was still out there and looked to be Ohio State’s to lose, thanks to all of the groundwork Knowles had laid. But his pledge to USC was the blow that really made many ask: what in the world is going on here?
Wait and see mode
The most plausible reason for what is going on at the linebacker spot is a “wait and see” type of attitude from the players Ohio State is recruiting. Targeting national guys is always going to be a battle with other top suitors, especially in the south where the Bamas and Georgias of the world are. But losing out on the top two players on the board just doesn’t sit well when you consider how successful the Buckeyes are at the other positions, and that directly seems to have an impact.
Looking at Brian Hartline, it makes perfect sense why the receiver recruiting has been so successful. The on-field production has been off the charts, the NFL Draft has been a key tool, and both have correlated with positive results in consecutive classes. The quarterback position is no different. Can that be said for linebacker though? Probably not.
While linebacker play hasn’t been horrible in Columbus, you still see the difference in the linebacker production in comparison to some of the more glamorous spots, especially on offense. In this regard, prospective players at the position may need to see Knowles prove himself a bit at the helm of the Buckeye defense and show why the group is at least somewhat “fixed” with improvement at linebacker being a key factor in that turnaround.
In the end
It’s not time to panic. Should there be some frustration? Absolutely. Regardless of position, the Buckeyes are held to a higher standard than most, and that’s their own doing. Missing out on your top targets isn’t going to slide with fans, and surely the staff feels the same way.
Knowles deserves at least a year under his belt to prove why he’s the guy in Columbus to right the ship on defense. If and when that does happen, look for the recruiting success to increase, and that goes for all positions. With the exception of Larry Johnson, it’s important to remember this staff is all brand new. Like it or not, in a perfect world a new staff may earn some benefit of the doubt, and clearly they’re still doing a pretty solid job at the other spots as this class is starting to come together.