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A Brief History of New Oklahoma State Defensive Coordinator Jim Knowles

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Oklahoma State has a new defensive coordinator. Jim Knowles previously coordinated the Duke Blue Devils defense from 2010-2017, which means this is the second consecutive defensive coordinator for Oklahoma State whose previous job will have been at that traditional football powerhouse in Durham, North Carolina.

Knowles was the head coach for Cornell from 2004-2009, coached linebackers at Ole Miss in 2003, was a defensive line coach and defensive coordinator at Western Michigan from 1997-2002 and coached various positions at Cornell from 1988-1996. But you already knew all that because you can read Wikipedia.

Knowles seems like an intriguing cat bent on simplistic defensive schemes and puffing stogies after big-time wins. I can be into both of those things. He’s also more evidence that OSU is going to change philosophically on the defensive side. He runs a 4-2-5 defense, which Gundy noted during his early signing period press conference that Oklahoma State is probably going to start running.

Can it work in the Big 12? Can it work for a guy who has never coached (or recruited) in this area of the country? Can it work for somebody who is not strong at recruiting in general?

Knowles faced two Big 12 teams in his tenure at Duke. The Devils held Kansas to 3 points in 2014 and held Baylor to 20 in 2017. Neither tells us much of anything. But there is this interesting tidbit from Duke writer Adam Rowe notes Knowles’ defensive success in the 2013 Peach Bowl.

Watch the (2013 Peach) Bowl where Duke gave (Johnny) Manziel fits for three quarters until he’s figured out what the hell was going on and just started doing magic tricks. At one point in the first quarter of that game, the camera catches Manziel on the sidelines saying, “What the (expletive) is happening?”

Of course Texas A&M also scored 52 points that game.

During his time as head coach at Cornell, Knowles found some early success. He coached the Big Red to a 26-34 overall record, which was actually pretty good considering where they’d been before he got there.

Cornell’s 2004 squad became the first team in Ivy League history to go from zero conference wins to a winning league slate in just one season. Under Knowles, Cornell posted three consecutive seasons (2005-06-07) at .500 or better for the first time since 1990-91-92 and, in 2007, enjoyed a stretch of scoring 30 or more points in four straight games for the first time since 1921 while home attendance nearly doubled from the 2006 campaign. [Go Duke]

I’m going to let Thomas Fleming and Adam Lunt dive deep on what Knowles will bring to the table from an Xs and Os standpoint, but a cursory glance at old articles and videos of him (of which there are few) reveals someone bent on controlling the line of scrimmage with aggressive pass rushing and letting that set the tone for the entire defense. It also sounds like he’s familiar with and even specializes in a defense that employs the Star linebacker, which OSU has used for a number of years now.

It will be interesting to see how that plays out in the Big 12. Knowledge of the system and being healthy should be able to prevent explosive plays, he notes in the video below. He’s also never faced Oklahoma or West Virginia in late November.

And then there’s this from fall 2017. As in six months ago.

Last season, Duke’s veteran secondary was torched in the passing game, finishing next to last in the ACC defensive pass efficiency. Despite losing four staples from their secondary, the Blue Devils expect to improve this season.

How? By simplifying the defense. [Duke Chronicle]

OK.

Tell me more …

Often last season, opposing wide receivers ran free during communication breakdowns—a trend that became more frequent after veteran stars DeVon Edwards and Breon Borders went down with injuries, and inexperienced players had to work with starters that they might have only had limited practice time with. [Duke Chronicle]

This sounds bad. This might be bad.

“One thing that we’ve done with a lot of young guys on the defense is simplification, so just a couple calls, then guys really learn and understand and get a deep understanding of what we want to do with those few calls, and it’s letting guys play,” redshirt senior cornerback Bryon Fields said at ACC media day in July. “A lot of times, mistakes come from trying to do too much, overthinking. We’ve definitely limited that, and I think we’ll have some guys make a lot more plays and you’ll see a lot less explosives this year.” [Duke Chronicle]

To be fair, this did sort of work. Duke was No. 22 in the country in points per drive in 2017 and No. 16 nationally in passing yards per game allowed. But they were No. 109 in passing plays over 40 yards allowed. Tied with … Oklahoma State. Duke created 19 turnovers in 13 games on defense. OSU created 24.

Lastly, despite there not being a ton of Q&As or information on Knowles, I found this article in SI pretty enlightening. I also thoroughly delighted in the quote below from the middle of the 2015 season.

This season Knowles has had a cigar after all but one of No. 23 Duke’s games, thanks in large part to his stifling 4-2-5 defense that’s among the best in the FBS. The Blue Devils (5-1, 2-0 in ACC) are No. 1 in the nation in points allowed (56), fourth in total defense (252.8 yards per game) and second in passing yards allowed (131.2 yards per game).

“We’re still piecing it together,” Knowles says. “There are still a lot of holes that I see, but the smoke machine is still in full force, baby.” [SI]

The smoke machine is still in full force, baby.

Those are the kinds of things I want my defensive coordinator spewing. Of course if coaches got jobs based on talking, Glenn Spencer would have already usurped Bill Belichick in New England by now.

So that’s a dive into the recent history of Knowles. We’ll have plenty more coverage on his schemes, philosophy and statistical success, but I hope it paints a decent picture of what Oklahoma State is getting. A seemingly good coach who has no experience stopping the Kylar Murrays and Will Griers of the world in this league. It obviously doesn’t tell the whole story, but OSU gave up 21 to Virginia Tech in the bowl game, and Glenn Spencer got fired. Duke gave up 24 to them a month earlier, and Knowles got hired.

Maybe it eventually works out, and maybe he’s exactly what OSU needs. But by no measure is this the splashy hire I think a lot of us were hoping for.

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