What Jim Knowles wants out of an Ohio State linebacker
Jim Knowles knows exactly what he wants out of each of his linebackers, something, he says, C.J. Hicks is still trying to figure out.
The Ohio State defensive coordinator’s linebacker position is not the traditional “linebacker,” something the five-star is still trying to wrap his mind around as he exits his first spring camp while showing signs of what his position coach is looking for.
“It’s not just ‘Hey, you’re in this place, you’re doing that,’” Knowles said. “You’re doing a lot of different things, which is good for them when they go to the next level. But he’s still figuring things out. When he was able to cut loose and play fast, I was really impressed with his feet and his ability to get from point A to point B, his short-space explosiveness, really impressed with that."
That’s all Knowles wanted to see from his defense in the spring: progress.
He admits his approach is different, it’s varied, it’s multiple, something that rears its head everywhere from the defensive backfield to defensive end.
And it continues in the middle, tossing away any of the traditional responsibilities of the middle or outside linebacker. Much like Knowles’ three safety spots, each linebacker is interchangeable and can switch at a moment’s notice.
Both will play middle and outside. Both will play in man and zone coverage. Both will blitz from the inside and the outside.
Knowles wants a football player in the middle of his defense, not necessarily a “linebacker.”
“A guy who has all kinds of football skills, one, that’s important, but, two, the mental understanding, and that’s why they do get a lot of stats because we put them in position to make plays,” Knowles said. “A lot of times, we funnel things to them and the safeties. They’re there and they got to get the job done, so they have to understand the scheme and where they fit.”
Knowles knows this is something that’s not going to come naturally.
As the Ohio State defensive coordinator plans ahead, looking for his next linebacker to fill that role in 2023 and beyond, he knows it’s not something that’s obvious from a high school player, but something he has to project: “How much football does this guy understand?”
“You got to just take an inventory of the guy’s skills and then get to know him to understand his demeanor, his football intelligence,” Knowles said. “But it’s something to project because it’s not a typical, in our system, not a typical ‘Hey, you’re an inside linebacker, you’re an outside linebacker.’ You got to be able to do everything.”
Knowles wants a linebacker who can see the big picture of his defense, something, he said, he’s still trying to find from his own position group.
Coming out of spring, the Ohio State defensive coordinator spoke highly of Tommy Eichenberg and his handle on what the defensive installation has brought, regarding him as a leader of the linebacker room and the rest of the defense.
But there’s many candidates Knowles is parsing through for playing time, something the defensive coordinator is still trying to figure out.
“I think that in terms of the actual playing time, you know, who’s going to get the majority of the snaps I think there’s a lot of good candidates,” Knowles said. “But how that’s all going to shake out in terms of who plays the most, who has some speciality things that they can do and help the team, packaging, where they can go, I think there’s a lot to be determined in term so the actual snaps and rep counts that come up in the game.”
Knowles knows what he wants his linebackers to do. Members of the room know exactly what Knowles wants out of the position, having installed most if not all of the former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator’s playbook during the spring.
Now, as the summer continues and fall nears, Knowles’ focus turns to which players can best put that into practice.
And he’s seen progress, something that Hicks showed from his first day on campus.
“You can see he got better from the beginning to end,” Knowles said.