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Jim Knowles readies for toughest challenge of career as Ohio State’s national title hopes rest on his defense

When it was over, the Oklahoma State protection lit up cigars. Simply not within the locker room — and never in celebration. The truth is, the get-together was tinged with disappointment.

The common season had led to an inches-short bid for the Massive 12 title and sure College Football Playoff berth. A Fiesta Bowl invite was a bonus, nevertheless it wasn’t the last word purpose.

This system falling quick was hammered residence for the Cowboys when their mentor, buddy and defensive coordinator, Jim Knowles, referred to as the Cowboys protection over to his home on an early December evening. By then, the gamers already knew their charismatic coach was leaving after 4 seasons in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

At that time, a 57-year-old gray-bearded free spirit with a touch of Willie Nelson to his look determined it was time to be, properly, on the street once more. Knowles had accepted the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator place. Correct goodbyes actually went up in smoke.

“All of them came visiting to my home, and we smoked cigars,” Knowles mentioned. “We had a very good evening. There was some disappointment. They have been blissful for me. I included them within the course of.”

That course of featured common Zoom and Facetime calls with Knowles updating his gamers not solely when curiosity got here in from different colleges but in addition the precise numbers he was being provided after a record-breaking yr at Oklahoma State.

“In all probability dangerous,” Knowles admitted. “When it was all occurring, these guys knew. You watch coaches depart in the midst of the evening and that kind of factor. These guys knew precisely who was providing and what they have been providing, even, like, greenback quantities. I handled them like my sons. I trusted them with the knowledge. After I look again, I feel, ‘Jeez, that is type of dangerous. Anyone can report that.'”

They did not. Apart from, Knowles concluded these gamers with whom he had change into so shut have been those who put him in that place. Sharing texts, greenback indicators and farewell cigars at his place was the least he may do.

“They’re the explanation I am getting these gives,” Knowles mentioned. “That is the dichotomy of it.”

The Ivy-educated coach is now peaking at a top-five program as No. 2 Ohio State prepares to kick off towards No. 5 Notre Dame. For these Buckeyes, Knowles could possibly be the distinction between a mere Massive Ten title and a nationwide championship. He is that completed. Final season protection gave the impression to be what prevented OSU from being not simply good however nice.

Now, they have one of many nation’s greats main the unit.

“That is someone who has solutions,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day mentioned. “As he says, he is put in his 10,000 hours. … He is in a position to run your entire protection. The best way we now have it proper now could be to have a head coach of the protection.”

For years, Knowles has been the cool, hip indie band of defensive coaches. Actually appreciated by solely a small group of knowledgeable insiders, Knowles was unknown by the common fan. However when his protection stumbled, Day did not hesitate signing the veteran to a reported three-year deal value $1.9 million per season.

That makes the previous Cornell defensive finish the highest-paid assistant in Ohio State historical past.

It additionally underscores how badly the Buckeyes wanted an skilled defensive chief.

Their protection was uncovered in a house nonconference loss to Oregon in 2021. After preserving it shut within the first half of the annual bloodletting with Michigan, Ohio State ultimately gave up essentially the most factors within the sequence (42) since 1946. The Buckeyes then needed to outscore Utah 48-45 in a extremely entertaining however disturbing (from a defensive standpoint) Rose Bowl victory.

In the meantime, Oklahoma State’s protection was its finest in at the least 40 years. Georgia Lite, if you’ll, simply with out the publicity. Underneath Knowles, the Pokes have been high 10 in complete protection, third-down conversions allowed, sacks, tackles for loss and factors.

Out of a 4-2-5 base look, Knowles developed a Massive 12 outlier: a smothering protection in an offense-first league. It was a course of. Therefore the cigars after Oklahoma State went from 112th to 82nd to forty fourth to fourth in complete protection throughout Knowles’ 4 seasons.

In Lincoln Riley’s final recreation, his Oklahoma workforce was held with out an offensive landing within the second half of Bedlam. The Cowboys received the bitter rivalry recreation for the primary time since 2014. That is not simply enchancment. That is going from promoting mixtapes on a avenue nook to a gold report.

Knowles’ migration to Ohio State is a look-in to the persevering with subdivision of applications at even the best ranges. This system that billionaire T. Boone Pickens constructed could not pony up sufficient to maintain a difference-making coordinator.

Knowles was reportedly provided a five-year contract at $1.3 million per season by Oklahoma State. Ohio State blew that out of the water with a proposal that was 46% increased (although for fewer years).

“We obtained outbid,” Pokes coach Mike Gundy mentioned.

Knowles needed to problem himself after six years as Cornell coach (26-34 from 2004-09). Duke‘s David Cutcliffe employed him as defensive coordinator in 2010 after using Knowles at Ole Miss as a linebackers coach in 2003. From 2013-17, Duke received 37 video games, essentially the most in a five-year interval since 1938-42.

In 2021, Knowles’ regular hand developed an Oklahoma State unit the place each starter was in at the least his fourth season, two of their sixth. In his fifth season, linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez was the No. 2 tackler within the Massive 12.

How that interprets to Ohio State is sophisticated. 9 months into the job and only some days earlier than Ohio State’s season opener, Knowles has change into philosophical. That has formed a recruiting pitch that solely the coach may create.

It took you 16 years to get to a top-five program, Knowles tells recruits. It took me 56 years. Let’s do it collectively.

“I am considering to myself, ‘How can I categorical to this child the standard of our time collectively?'” Knowles defined. “That got here to me.”

Solely three Ohio State starters return to guide this turnaround. There must be a constant drive off the sting. Defensive finish Jack Sawyer could possibly be the following nice one. Senior DE Zach Harrison goals for a bounce-back yr. Security Ronnie Hickman is a steadying drive, as is Oklahoma State switch and fellow S Tanner McCalister.

In a method, the Buckeyes can not help however be higher defensively. There have been points simply lining up proper final season. Oregon was in a position to exploit the protection operating play after play over its left sort out. Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs was ultimately demoted.

“You do not actually know [what happened] until you are within the submarine,” Knowles mentioned.

The reality: If Ohio State is simply common on protection, it’d be capable of run the desk. That is what occurs once you’ve obtained three Heisman Trophy candidates on the opposite aspect of the ball.

Regardless, Knowles goes to be a refreshing addition to a applications that is judged play by play. He is sufficiently old to let critiques roll off his again. He cares sufficient to know what’s at stake.

“I actually labored my method up. I really feel grateful that issues broke the best way they did. We all know there are lots of coaches who by no means make it right here,” Knowles mentioned. “They do not get the breaks.”

Day was more than pleased to have Knowles on board as that head coach of the protection. When he ducked in on defensive conferences after Coombs was demoted, “I felt like I wasn’t getting something completed.” Now, he can simply hand off that accountability prefer it’s a fullback dive.

There was a dialogue early on that Knowles may think about staying at Oklahoma State for the Fiesta Bowl after accepting the Ohio State job. That might have given him an early take a look at Notre Dame earlier than turning round and going through the Preventing Irish once more within the 2022 opener. All events ultimately agreed he get to Columbus, Ohio, as quickly as doable.

Preparation for Notre Dame was going to maintain itself. The view from the height for Knowles stays steep and treacherous.

“Dwelling in Columbus and Stillwater is lots completely different. Columbus is an actual metropolis,” mentioned Knowles with completely no animosity meant. “I grew up in Philadelphia, so there may be much more of what I am comfy with. Definitely much more issues to do. Not that I’ve lots of time.”

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