The start of a new football season for the Oklahoma State Cowboys also brings the start of a new Defensive Coordinator in Jim Knowles. This will be the fourth defensive coordinator under Head Coach Mike Gundy. There were no questions about the need to make a move, but it wasn’t exactly the move everyone had in mind. Jim “Knowles” defense and is going to get back to the basics. Knowles’ defense hopes to give this team an advantage that they haven’t had since Bill Young.
The Duke Years
Knowles spent eight years as the Duke Blue Devils Defensive Coordinator. Knowles’ defense went out with a bang in his last season in blue. They only gave up 20.2 points per game. He had the number three overall defense in the ACC. Only Clemson and Florida State finished ahead of the Blue Devils.
For the first time in more than three decades, Knowles had the Duke defense inside the top 25 in overall defense. They landed at the number 21 position. Knowles’ defense also totaled four defensive touchdowns in their 13 games played last season.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from his numbers last year was the defensive play in the secondary. It’s no secret that the quarterback play in the Big 12 is excellent. The resume of teaching players like Sophomore Mark Gilbert how to ballhawk could pay off big for the Cowboys. Gilbert had six interceptions last year for the Blue Devils.
The Scheme Change
The Jim Knowles’ defense is not the scheme that Oklahoma State is used to seeing. That will be a welcome change in Stillwater! In recent years under Glenn Spencer, the Cowboys defense ran a 4-3 scheme. He used pressure up front with his “Star” position to help in run support. This left the slot receiver to run more freely into the secondary. Spencer’s defense ranked 70th last year and was frequently beat on deep ball passes.
Spencer had his defense playing cover three quite often. This style of defense typically relied on the safety covering the slot position. The result of that is that cornerbacks play more one-on-one situations. Thus, the big play opportunities for the long-armed quarterbacks of the Big 12 increased significantly.
In Knowles defensive scheme, he has a nickel position that tends to play more slot coverage and less of a run support role. In the world of the spread offense, playing with five true defensive backs against the pass helps a lot. They can defend the flats and slots that give linebackers nightmares. Defenses that have a run-stopping linebacker covering athletic tight-ends and speedy slot receivers typically doesn’t bode well.
A good defensive scheme means nothing if you don’t have the right players. Let’s take a look at the talent pool of the Cowboys defensive backs.
Justin Phillips | 19 | OLB | RS SR
Last season Phillips was awarded the Leslie O’Neal Award by the coaching staff as the most outstanding defensive player. He obtained the award in large part due to his pick-sixes in consecutive games for the Cowboys. He also caused three forced fumbles on the year. He is a great tackler but can also cover extremely well. Those talents could get him into the Nickel role under Coach Knowles.
Calvin Bundage | 1 | LB | JR
As a Sophomore, Bundage showed out when it mattered the most. He had 54 tackles on the year with 5.5 for a loss while adding three sacks. Two of his sacks came in the Bedlam game against Baker Mayfield. He averaged six tackles per game in the second half of the year and looks to increase all of those numbers this season. Under Knowles, Bundage will play one of the true linebacker positions and look to anchor the middle of the defense.
A.J. Green | 4 | CB | JR
Green started every game last season. He led the team and finished second in the Big 12 with four interceptions. Green had a total of 47 tackles and 40 of those were of the solo variety. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the year for the Cowboys was the interception Green had against Iowa State in the waning moments of the game to seal the victory. He will likely be positioned against the best receivers weekly in Knowles’ defense.
Kenneth Edison-McGruder | 3 | S | RS SR
McGruder makes the move back to safety this season from the linebacker position last year. Plagued with injuries last season, he missed four games and only started in five. He finished the year with only 21 tackles, but playing the “bandit” position for Coach Knowles’ defense should increase those numbers drastically. Knowles will need a leader on defense and hopefully, McGruder will be able to step up and take that role as an upperclassman.
Rodarius Williams | 8 | CB | RS SO
Williams played every game as a true freshman last season for the Cowboys. He tied the rookie season record for pass breakups with 10. He finished the season with 44 tackles, 36 of those were solos. I believe that Williams could emerge as a lock-down corner for the Cowboys this season and thrive under the new defensive coordinator’s scheme, with help in the middle and over the top.
While the talent pool isn’t as deep as he would like it to be, I think Knowles has a solid foundation on defense. He isn’t going to wow anyone with disguised blitz packages and coverages. His defensive scheme, however, should reduce the big plays against the secondary and push the spread offenses of the Big 12 to dump the ball off or run more frequently than they’d like.
It may not be a big splash that the orange community was looking for, but the Jim Knowles led defense could have BIG implications on what everyone is viewing a transitional year in the “post-Rudolph era”.