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Ask LGHL: Will the Ohio State defense be respectable this year?

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Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Every day for the entirety of the Ohio State football season, we will be asking and answering questions about the team, college football, and anything else on our collective minds of varying degrees of importance. If you have a question that you would like to ask, you can tweet us @LandGrant33 or if you need more than 280 characters, send an email HERE.


Obviously, the answer to this question is going to largely depend on your definition of “respectable.” Last year, Ohio State’s total defense came in at 59th nationally (scoring was 38th, rushing was 28th, passing was 96th). I would say that at least the rushing defense — and perhaps even scoring — were respectable, with total defense straddling the line between middling and disappointing; obviously, that passing defense was beyond redeemable.

However, for me, whether or not the defense is “respectable” or not has little to do with its numbers, so if the Buckeye D ends up nicely sliding back 10 spots in the national rankings, but they are somehow more consistent in short-yardage situations and are better at preventing long passing plays (they were 119th nationally in plays giving up 10 yards or more through the air), then I will be relatively happy.

But let’s be honest, the bulk of the success of the 2022 Ohio State football Buckeyes will depend on whether or not C.J. Stroud and the offense can approach the highs of their 2021 performance, in which the unit was the most prolific offense in the country both in terms of yards and points.

However, as historic as the unit was last year, its performance wasn’t enough to get the team a win over its rival, a conference title, a berth in the College Football Playoff, or a national championship. So, if OSU wants to achieve any — or all — of those goals in this new season, there will absolutely need to be a return to respectability for the defense; and fortunately, I think Jim Knowles and the fresh-faced defensive coaching staff can make that happen.

On Monday, head coach Ryan Day and defensive coordinator Knowles met with the media following practice as the team transitions from its camp mindset to more of an in-season approach to practice and preparation. Day said that he anticipated that the defensive secondary should be at “full strength” for the season opener against Notre Dame on Sept. 2, which should go a long way to starting the season off on the right foot.

But as Knowles got more into specifics about his side of the ball, I think a clearer picture of what to expect came into focus, perhaps not in his still muddy schematic approach and nomenclature, but at least in philosophy.

Knowles said that he had been able to install roughly 75% of his defense during camp, which was more than he had anticipated. He noted that you never want to put everything in before the season in order to continue to present fresh looks to opponents throughout the season.

The new coordinator attributed the rapid installation to just how quickly the defensive players were able to pick things up. He said that “they want to be great,” and trust me, Jim, we want them to be great as well.

While Knowles is a bit of a bon vivant, he has never struck me as someone who is prone to hyperbole or blowing smoke for smoke-blowing’s sake. So, for him to say that his squad’s ability to mentally retain the schematic information has been impressive, I believe him, and that excites me.

For the past two seasons, it has felt as though Ohio State’s defense was out in the cul-de-sac playing a game of two-hand-touch following a very heavy Thanksgiving dinner with the full effects of tryptophan starting to set in. There never appeared to be a fully formed structure to anything that they were attempting to do, and everyone seemed to be either a step or two behind or completely out of position.

I don’t think that that is going to happen this season. Will they be perfect? Of course not. Will it take time for the defense to fully adjust to the new system and how offenses will attack it? Of course, but I am not going into the season expecting Buckeye defenders to be out-prepared, out-coached, and out-schemed like I have been recently; a huge step towards respectability, in my opinion.

Another thing that Knowles discussed in his press availability on Monday was that while he was comfortable with defensive line coach Larry Johnson rotating players across the front as he always has, when it comes to the linebackers and (especially the) secondary, he wants the top guys to get the bulk of the action.

Admittedly, some young guys were forced into action at LB and DB in 2021 far sooner than they ever should have been; in some cases that worked out for the best (Denzel Burke, Steele Chambers, Tyleik Williams) and in other cases it didn’t (I’m not going to call guys out here, especially since some of them are no longer with the program), but beyond those situations, the previous coaching staff seemed insistent that they mirror Johnson’s philosophy and get as many guys into the game as possible, whether they were ready or not.

Often that put guys who had no business playing competitive snaps on the field in situations that they just weren’t ready for, and that is far more the coaches’ fault than the players’.

Knowles said on Monday that it is vital for the best defensive backs to be in the game in order for them to “see everything” from the back of the D. He mentioned that he will run multiple defensive sets with multiple personnel packages depending on the situation, but at this point, it is clear that Knowles believes in having his best players on the field far more often than not.

Do all of these things guarantee a return to respectability for the Buckeye defense? Again, no they do not, but they absolutely make me feel better about its chances than I would have had the previous defensive regime remained in power.

Throughout his entire career, Jim Knowles has been known as a thinking man’s defensive coordinator, so if he is impressed with his new players’ comprehension of his defensive schemes, that can only be a good thing. And, if he is committed to sticking with the most prepared and talented players for the majority of the defense’s meaningful snaps, then I don’t know how much more I can ask for in righting the wrongs of the previous defensive staff.

So, to answer your question, @DCinLF, I do truly believe that the Buckeye defense will be respectable this year, and — given how much talent they have accumulated in recent years — I actually think that they have the potential to be much more than respectable to boot.