Ohio State football: Transfer helping expedited installation of new defense

COLUMBUS -- The biggest topic for Ohio State football this spring is the new defense.

Jim Knowles was brought in from Oklahoma State to revamp a stop unit that fell on hard times the last two seasons.

It’s a movie Tanner McCalister has seen before, but not quite the way it is unfolding in Columbus.

McCalister, who transferred to Ohio State in January after starting at one of the safety positions for Knowles the last two seasons at Oklahoma State, has not seen anything new yet — but he has seen a lot more than he expected to at this point in time.

“It’s definitely been accelerated,” McCalister said Friday. “I want to say the first two or three weeks of spring he was putting in a lot of plays, and I kind of told him, ‘Hey Coach, you know we’re putting in a lot.’ But he said, ‘I know they’re gonna mess up. I just want to get it in so they can get a feel for it.’”

Ohio State paid $1.9 million (per season) to pull Knowles out of Stillwater, so the stakes are undeniably high.

His scheme is reputed to be complex, and more than one Big 12 football observer has noted it took him multiple years to get the Cowboys defense up to full speed.

The Big 12′s OSU was among the top defenses in the nation last season, but the Cowboys relied on many veterans who were well-schooled in the scheme, a group that included McCalister.

“To those that a lot has been given, a lot is expected,” Knowles said at his first press conference in Columbus. “I went into Oklahoma State really believing that when we could get the defense to rise to the level and culture of the offense and the things that they did off the field in the weight room, that we’d be able to compete for a national championship, and at Oklahoma State we were what, two feet short this year, right? But it took four years.

“It’s not lost on me that I don’t have four years here.”

The coach said this spring he has dropped large caches of knowledge on the players from time to time to see what sinks in.

McCalister had not seen that that their previous stop together, but it appears to be working so far.

“The guys have handled it really well, and Coach Knowles will tell you the same thing,” McCalister said. “Everyone has adjusted pretty fast. It’s definitely different from my previous school. He’s put in almost the whole playbook, which is good so everyone can see this is what the defense is going to look like. So that’s exciting that everybody’s really picking it up and you’re not seeing guys lost out there. Guys look like they know what they’re doing, so I’m excited.”

McCalister is a candidate to start at nickel safety, a cover position that plays in the box in place of a traditional third linebacker.

He is also playing the role of interpreter of Knowles’ coaching style and tutor of the defense, something he embraces both because coaching could be in his future and it has helped him get to know his new teammates.

“I’ve been having to be more of a vocal leader than I was at my previous school, which is no problem, but I also was saying guys are picking up the defense really fast, which is good,” he said. “They are beating my expectations so far. Obviously it helps having somebody who played in it, but even me, I don’t know it all. I’m still trying to learn different things, see what the linebackers are doing and the d-line.”

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