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Ohio State Football: Jim Knowles Tasked With Turning Around Buckeyes' Defense

Jim Knowles, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

The "mad scientist" has lots of work to do with the Buckeyes' defense

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is widely considered a literary classic. The story of the brilliant scientist who creates a "monster" that is unleashed upon mankind has impacted popular culture, especially within the genre of films and plays.

Here is how Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy referred to Jim Knowles, his former defensive coordinator. "Jim's interesting... He's kind of like a mad scientist. He goes into his office on Sunday and closes his door. You don't see him until Sunday night when we go to practice... He goes in and puts on that mad scientist hat and comes up with things he wants to do..."

While being labeled a "mad scientist" by his former employer, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that Knowles will need his creative skills in his new job  Ohio State defensive coordinator. Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day hired Knowles away from Gundy and the Cowboys in hopes of turning around an Ohio State defense that has struggled immensely since the departure of coordinator Jeff Hafley (current Boston College head coach) after the 2019 season. The reconstruction of the Buckeyes' defense was such a priority for Day that he hired Knowles in December, nearly a month before Ohio State played Utah in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

Related: Early Big Ten Football Predictions for 2022

In 2020, the Buckeyes' defensive problems were often excused or explained as COVID-19 issues. Longtime assistant Kerry Coombs was welcomed back enthusiastically to Columbus upon his hiring in January 2020, despite the fact that Coombs had never been a coordinator. The pandemic eliminated spring practice, thus reducing critical teaching and coaching periods for Coombs and his players. The Big Ten initially canceled its 2020 season, only to reverse course and play an abbreviated schedule. With all of the upheaval that took place throughout 2020, Ohio State fans were hopeful that the defense would improve with time.

But from the onset of the 2021 season, it became quickly apparent that the Buckeyes' defense hadn't fixed its issues. Ohio State rallied on the road to win its opener at Minnesota despite giving up 203 rushing yards and 31 points. Things went from bad to worse the following week, as Oregon came into Columbus and defeated the Buckeyes 35-28 behind a running attack that piled up 269 yards and averaged more than seven yards per carry.

Following the loss to the Ducks, Day adjusted defensive coaching responsibilities, shifting Coombs to the press box and handing play-calling duties to secondary coach Matt Barnes. To Coombs' and Barnes' credit, the defense improved after that but the issues were on full display in the regular-season finale at Michigan. Ohio State surrendered 42 points and 487 total yards (297 rushing) in a 42-27 loss that snapped the Buckeyes' eight-game winning streak in THE GAME. Less than two weeks later, Day had hired Knowles.

Under Knowles' direction, Oklahoma State finished this past season in the top 10 nationally in three of the four major categories. The Cowboys were eighth in scoring (16.8 ppg), fourth in total defense (297.9 ypg), and fifth against the run (91.2 ypg). The defense was a big reason why Oklahoma State went 12-2 overall, including 8-1 in the Big 12, and played in the conference title game (lost to Baylor).

Contrast the Cowboys' numbers with an Ohio State defense that allowed 372.6 yards per game (59th in FBS), and it's understandable why Buckeyes fans are excited to see what Knowles can do.

Knowles also will serve as linebackers coach. For a unit that historically boasts players such as Randy Gradishar, Tom Cousineau, Chris Spielman, A.J. Hawk, and others, there is much room for improvement for the current crop. Due to both injury and ineffectiveness, Ohio State's best linebacker in 2021 was converted running back Steele Chambers, who moved to the position during summer camp. The lack of linebacker development, either through recruiting issues or poor coaching, will be another area for Knowles to address this spring.

The other big contrast when it comes to Knowles and Coombs is experience. Besides serving as Oklahoma State's defensive coordinator the past four seasons, Knowles also has been in the role at Duke (2011-17) and Western Michigan (2001-02).

Knowles also will have two former defensive coordinators on his Buckeyes staff in new additions safeties coach Perry Eliano and cornerbacks coach Tim Walton. Eliano was previously the DC for Bowling Green (2016-17) while Walton has done it on both the collegiate (Miami in 2007, Memphis in '08) and professional (St. Louis Rams, 2017) levels. Eliano comes to Columbus after spending his past two seasons coaching cornerbacks at Cincinnati while Walton had been the cornerbacks coach for the Jaguars since 2019.

Now both will work alongside the so-called "mad scientist," as Knowles looks to find the right formula that will produce the next fearsome defense at Ohio State.

— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is podcasting for Buckeye Scoop. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.