'We expect a top-10 defense': Ohio State football's Ryan Day has high hopes for turnaround

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

INDIANAPOLIS — Ohio State coach Ryan Day set a high bar for a defense in its first year of a rebuild led new coordinator Jim Knowles. 

During Big Ten media days on Wednesday, Day offered up the specific goal.

“We expect a top-10 defense,” Day said. “That’s what we want.”

That would mean significant improvement over the past two seasons, where the Buckeyes fell toward the middle of the pack in the Football Bowl Subdivision, ranking No. 59 in total defense in 2021 and 2020.

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But Day framed the big expectations for Knowles’ defense as in line with the standards set for the other side of the ball, a unit that has ranked in the top 10 in total offense in each season since he first joined the program as an assistant in 2017.

Ohio State linebacker Tommy Eichenberg tackles Utah's Tavion Thomas during the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes ranked No. 59 in total defense last year.

“The expectation is a top-10 offense every year,” Day said. “The expectation is a top-10 defense.”

Much of the success on defense will hinge on how the Buckeyes fare in the trenches, where they were gashed last fall. Four teams surpassed 200 rushing yards against them, and in their 42-27 loss to Michigan, the Wolverines totaled 297 yards on the ground.

Ohio State linebacker Tommy Eichenberg celebrates a tackle in the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes ranked No. 59 in total defense last year.

Day identified the rush defense as the biggest dynamic in a potential turnaround.

“You've got to stop the run,” Day said, “and certainly there was a couple of games where it didn’t get done. We've got to do that. A lot of that has to do with technique. A lot of that has to do with scheme. And with toughness.”

Glimpses into their progress have been limited in the summer, where teams go through strength and conditioning workouts instead of padded practices.

But Day said he left spring practice in April feeling encouraged by the steps they had taken.  

“There were certain things you saw that were pretty good,” Day said. “The levels of the install that were in that they were executing at a pretty high level and you can see where it's going and the guys are understanding it.

Ohio State's Taron Vincent and Tommy Eichenberg bring down Michigan State running back Jordon Simmons. The Buckeyes ranked No. 59 in total defense last year.

“I give our defensive players a lot of credit, because they really put a lot of extra work in. I see those guys diving in and just trying to watch as much film as possible. They're really into it, and that's a big part of it as well.”

Knowles runs an intricate system designed to confuse offenses by presenting a variety of looks.

Jim Knowles had Oklahoma State football a top 10 defense in year 4

It can present a steep learning curve. Oklahoma State didn’t become a top-10 defense until the fourth season of Knowles’ tenure in Stillwater. The Cowboys ranked No. 4 in the FBS in total defense last fall.

But Knowles had installed most of his playbook in spring practice as he felt players were quick to grasp the schemes.

“One of the things I liked about Jim is if somebody's beating them with a certain play, he can adapt and get that play stopped,” Day said, “because he has the tools in his toolbox. I think he's done some of that already. He's put a lot in.”

Ohio State's Tommy Eichenberg (left) and Denzel Burke tackle Tulsa running back Anthony Watkins. The Buckeyes ranked No. 59 in total defense last year.

Part of Day’s confidence in an overnight rebuild is also owed to the success he saw in 2019.

In his first full season leading the Buckeyes, he hired Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison as co-coordinators, and they molded a group led by star pass rusher Chase Young into the nation’s top-ranked defense. The previous year, the Buckeyes had ranked No. 71 in total defense.

That dramatic leap was triggered by the right blend of emerging talent, which included Young and first-round NFL draft picks Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette in the secondary, and their comfort in a new scheme.  

“Every team is different, so you can’t really compare,” Day said, “but you have a team that had some really good young talent that got some experience the year before, a new style of system of defense coming in, and seeing those two things come together. Now we got to go put it on the field.”

Ohio State is bringing back a lot of experience to complement the new defensive coordinator.

According statistics kept by ESPN, the Buckeyes return 82% of their defensive production from last season.

It’s the fifth-highest percentage among Power Five Conference teams and the 13th most in the FBS.

They’ll all be aiming to meet expectations.

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at jkaufman@dispatch.com or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman.

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