Path to Improvement on Defense at OSU Could Hinge on Being More Multiple

Limiting big plays as a defense in the Big 12 is like expecting a newborn baby to water the plants, but defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has set out on a mission this season to do exactly that (limiting big plays, not asking newborns to water plants).

In his first season calling the defense at OSU last year, explosive plays surrendered was a massive weakness. Too many big plays were given up. Too many points were given up. Too many balls being chunked over the heads of the OSU secondary. The defense, plain and simple, was bad.

“Too many explosive plays,” said Knowles earlier this summer. “We ranked up there in sacks, but what’s the trade off?”

The trade off is that OSU stunk in basically every other facet of defending teams. The good news, if there’s any, is that Knowles has been in a similar situation before. When he first took over as DC at Duke in 2012, the first season the team surrendered 6.0 yards per play — the exact amount OSU surrendered in 2018. But then, steadily, Duke improved:

National rank: Yards per play (out of 124 teams)

2012: 118th (6.0)

2013: 81st (5.7)

2014: 41st (5.2)

2015: 57th (5.4)

2016: 114th (6.4)

2017: 47th (5.2)

The number shrinking here doesn’t explicitly say that Duke cut out big plays from happening entirely, but to go from giving up 6.0 yards per play to 5.2 two years later — which ranked 41st nationally — means something was being done right. Big plays were at least being tamed.

How about another metric for the stat geeks out there: Points per play. This is the OKC Dave wheelhouse of stat goodness. I’m no OKC Dave, but this trend line is aesthetically pleasing to me.

National rank: Points per play (out of 124 teams)

2012: 113th (.523)

2013: 64th (.376)

2014: 14th (.286)

2015: 55th (.361)

2016: 85th (.436)

2017: 36th (.319)

Duke improved in limiting big plays and limiting points. It got better as Knowles integrated his system, and as his players grew more familiar with it. To me, that’s an underrated part of what to expect in 2019. Sure, players have an extra year of experience, and yes, transfers and new additions could positively impact the unit as a whole. But familiarity — especially in a scheme that is brand stinking new — is as important as anything. With familiarity comes nuance in Knowles’ system, which he’s hoping to implement more of.

“We’re gonna be multiple,” he told us this summer. “We’re gonna be able to move guys around to different positions. We started with Brailford, moving him around. We’re gonna try to have a lot of guys on their feet and rotate guys in. I think it’s a great opportunity for a guy who can come in a limited role and then the more plays he makes, the more time he gets. There’s opportunity there.”

Is improvement really as simple as the F word? (Familiarity!) Probably not. But look, Knowles doesn’t have an all-star recruiting class on the way or a top-end grad transfer or the Kyler Murray of linebackers running the show. He has virtually the same hand (plus some newbies) that he was dealt last year. That means in Year Two it’s about putting into place the lessons learned from a rough Year One, familiarizing your players with what improvement can look like, and adding stunts, gadgets and gizmos to what’s already in place to be better this year than the last.

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