There’s been a lot of talk about the Leo position since Jim Knowles made the move from Stillwater to Columbus, but up until Tuesday, very little of it had come from members of the Ohio State program.
In fact, when asked about the hybrid linebacker/defensive end position – a calling card of Knowles’ previous defenses at Oklahoma State and Duke – Buckeye players have been intentionally tight-lipped this spring.
“The Leo? Yeah, I don’t know what the Leo is, I don’t know what you guys are talking about, honestly,” sophomore defensive end Jack Sawyer said in jest last week. “I haven’t heard of the Leo. Have you guys heard of the Leo? I haven’t. Honestly, we haven’t done much with it yet. So I honestly can’t really give you (much about it).”
At least during the first week of spring practice, Knowles made it clear that the Buckeyes wouldn’t worry about implementing the position early on, as the team still had plenty to accomplish in drilling down fundamentals out of its four-down base look. But three weeks later, Ohio State has begun putting the package in, and its name – Jack, not Leo, for now – coincidentally mirrors the player that appears to be the leading candidate for the role at the moment.
“We dropped a bunch of it in today, actually,” Knowles said. “So my plan has been to push back off, push back off, so I’ll download a bunch of information and then I’ll pull back into calling the same defense for a while and then download a bunch of information. We want to be able to get everything on film so we can coach off of it. But we put it in today.
“I told them we’re not gonna call it a Leo, we’re gonna call it a Jack for now, because the Leo is the king of the jungle. So when you become the Leo, that’s a big deal because you can do what a D-end does and you go do what a linebacker does. So right now it’s just more of what we call a Jack position.
“A bunch of guys got a shot at it today. Jack (Sawyer) got a shot at it. I like him, I like him a lot. He’s serious about it.”
Besides Sawyer, another player Knowles likes in the Jack spot right now is redshirt sophomore Mitchell Melton, who began his Buckeye career as a linebacker but has been working with Larry Johnson and the Ohio State defensive line this spring since returning from a season-ending injury suffered last year. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Melton’s frame is smaller than that of Sawyer, but bigger than most linebackers on the Buckeye roster.
“The guy who’s impressed me after the move, quickly, was Mitchell (Melton). Mitchell has done a great job for Coach Johnson, and then we put him in this Jack position and I thought he showed up very well,” Knowles said. “So he’s kind of been a guy that’s jumped out at me.”
Melton was also the most recent recipient of Knowles’ new Silver Bullet of the Day distinction, bestowed upon an individual Buckeye defender after each day of padded practice as voted on by the staff.
—Jim Knowles (@CoachJimKnowles) March 29, 2022
But Sawyer and Melton are not the only two Buckeyes who have seen reps at the Jack position, as it seems Knowles is not afraid to try out a slew of varying body types at the hybrid spot depending on the alignment or the matchup or circumstance. Along with the aforementioned pair, Knowles said Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Caden Curry and Palaie Gaoteote all tried their hand at the Jack on Tuesday.
“JJB, he played a little bit today, he’s kind of coming off an injury so he got some walkthrough reps in. Caden (Curry) is a candidate, I’ve liked some of the things he’s done in terms of his quickness off the ball, so he’s a guy we’re looking at. And then from the linebacker position, EA, we want to try to find a role for him,” Knowles said. “So we had EA involved in that Jack position, then also in a Sam position which we’ll sometimes utilize against teams when they play two tight ends, which our offense does a little bit. So we’ve gotten EA in there.”
Knowles said JT Tuimoloau could also “eventually” play the Jack position, but that “it’s just a matter of who’s best and who’s best up front, also.”
At the origin of the hybrid position that Knowles has popularized, the 35-year college coaching veteran said it was designed to impact the run game of an opposing offense first and foremost, but that it has evolved into a role that creates a multi-faceted impact on the opposition.
“It definitely started as a run scheme disruptor,” Knowles said. “You talk to offensive coaches and they have to make different plans for three-down than four-down and what are you and can you do both out of the same personnel? So it starts as a run-game disruptor and then it goes to how to attack protections. Now all the sudden once you got the guy moving around, you got him different places, now you see how the offense adjusts to that and their schemes and you can come back with other things and counter in the passing game.
“That player’s productive in terms of the pass-rush because I think they develop a mentality of being a wild card, being a guy who makes plays. I think it’s a great recruiting tool. But yeah, it started in the run game.”
After starting out slow in implementing new concepts, Knowles knows he must get the Buckeyes up to speed with relative haste given the expectation to make an immediate turnaround on defense. But he also knows that putting too much on his players can be overwhelming, and he’s had to walk a fine line in balancing that dynamic.
Still, Knowles said he only expects the Buckeye defenders to know “two-thirds” of his defensive scheme by the end of spring.
“You just gotta look in their eyes, because we’ll go in one day and we’ll download nine defenses in our Jet package, which is what we’re calling for the Jack,” Knowles said. “And then you do it against cans, you run around and you do it against just trash cans, and then you do it against the offense. And then I just run around like crazy saying, ‘Go here, go there.’ And then they’re fine, and then you kind of see their eyes glaze over, and then you know, OK, it’s time just to call base. ‘Give me a period of just base four-down,’ and then you kind of back off.”
Ohio State is far from finished installing its new defense, and with some concepts – including the Jack position – it has really only just begun. But Knowles is ramping up the learning curve for his pupils as spring continues to move along, and hopes to have exposed the Buckeyes to quite a bit of his system by the time the spring game has concluded.
“I want to get it all in because of the urgency, but also so I can teach,” Knowles said. “I don’t want to keep showing Oklahoma State film. So I want to get it on tape, good or not-so-good, and then we can learn from it all summer. We can put it all together and learn from it.”