COLUMBUS — A year ago, one of the hottest Ohio State football topics was Jim Knowles’ installing his defense.
This year, one of the hottest Ohio State football topics is Knowles getting that defense to work when it matters most.
The veteran coach has two things working in his favor in that regard: A year of education in the system and the talent of the unit lined up across from his every practice.
“This is a great offense, and we did not do our job in those matchup games that we needed to,” Knowles said.
Overall, the Buckeyes were better on defense last season, especially against the run.
Three games stick out like a sore thumb when assessing the stats, though, and that’s probably no coincidence.
Penn State piled up 482 total yards while Michigan and Georgia both went over 500. Those were the three most talented teams on the schedule so they can be expected to get their licks in, but the disparity in results was great. Ohio State allowed only 321.5 yards per game on the season, and only Maryland and Toledo even reached 400 yards.
“In order to get better, we have to win against our offense,” Knowles said. “We have to compete. We have to fight.”
That means taking every loss to heart even if the player on the other side might be the best in the country at his position.
“I mean, we can’t just say well (Marvin Harrison Jr.) is a great player. He’s the best player, so he beat us,” Knowles said. “No, because that’s who we’re going to face when we get into the matchup games. So we have to win in practice. So what I’m pushing and what I’m seeing is our guys who are fighting more at the point of emphasis where you have to make the play. And we’re getting our hands on a lot more balls. And that’s noticeable.”
More than mindset is changing this spring.
Three starters in the five-man secondary will be new, and so will two starters on the front line.
Jack Sawyer looks to have taken over for Zach Harrison as the strong-side defensive end after splitting his time between reserve end and a hybrid position known as the “Jack” last year.
“(Sawyer) is getting better every day,” Knowles said. “I think that move and staying out of that package this spring has been really good for (Sawyer). He gets to focus on the fundamentals with Coach (Larry) Johnson, and I really like his progress with him on one end and J.T. (Tuimoloau) on the other. I think we got a great pair to start out with.”
In the secondary, Lathan Ransom is staying at the boundary safety position known as the Bandit, meaning he typically will line up to the short side of the field (a.k.a. the boundary/closer to the sideline) and could be asked to help stop the run.
Sixth-year senior Josh Proctor is getting the first crack at replacing Ronnie Hickman at middle safety, known as the Adjuster.
“I think it puts them in position to play to their strengths,” Knowles said. “That puts Josh in the middle of the field more. It allows Lathan to be the drop-down run defender more, and Josh can do it, too, but we’re just trying to play to their strengths.”
He said the coaches are also looking at multiple players at the Nickel after Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCalister held it down last year.
His primary backup, Cam Martinez, is first up while Syracuse transfer Ja’Had Carter is also in the mix and the staff is giving looks to second-year corners Jyaire Brown and Ryan Turner.
“With Cam, it’s just all about confidence, right? It’s establishing that confidence,” Knowles said. “Playing against Marv in the slot sometimes, that’s great for Cam. He just has to establish confidence. He’s got all the tools.”
Carter primarily played in the slot at Syracuse, where he was a three-year starter, but Knowles said he can play all three safety positions.
Trying Brown and Turner at Nickel is an effort to get more work for each and possibly creating another option when the Buckeyes face teams where they could use more of a pure cover man in the slot.
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