The Ohio State Defense Department has a few questions to answer this spring, but one it’s unlikely to address is the future of Jim Knowles’ “Jack” position.
The defense coordinator joined Ohio State last year after making Oklahoma’s defense one of the best in the country. This 2021 unit thrived on being disruptive at the line of scrimmage. It was second in sacks nationally, and the Jacks position played a big part in that success.
The position, a hybrid defensive end designed to wreak havoc, has been a staple in Knowles’ defense dating back to Jason Babin, a Western Michigan first-round pick in 2004.
It’s worked everywhere Knowles has been, except for Ohio State last year.
“We didn’t quite capitalize on the position like I was hoping for last year,” Knowles said. “It didn’t seem to evolve with our staff.”
Some of this is out of Knowles’ hands. Key injuries hampered the staffing options available to him.
At the start of the 2023 season, the jack position was a topic of discussion. who will play it How often will Knowles use it? Will it be successful this time?
Those are all fair questions, but we won’t find an answer this spring because Knowles isn’t making it a focus.
“This spring I want to focus on the fundamentals of our four-down,” Knowles said.
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One of the biggest obstacles to the potential of the position last year was the makeup of Ohio State’s roster.
Knowles entered a program equipped with four traditional defenders. Though the Jack is a lineman/linebacker hybrid, ideal skill isn’t just about being a powerful edge rusher.
“What you’re looking for is someone who’s an extremely prolific football player but doesn’t fit into anyone’s box,” Knowles said. “That guy the defensive line coach says, ‘He’s not big enough.’ The linebacker coach says, “He doesn’t read well enough.” The running backs coach says, ‘He’s a good player, but he’s not in the top three running backs.'”
There were players on the roster who could fill the role, including Jack Sawyer and Mitchell Melton, but Melton’s season-ending knee injury in the Spring 2022 game made for an early curve ball.
That’s also the reason why he won’t invest much in the position this spring. Melton quickly flashed last year as someone who could be ideal for the position. He’s got the size and athleticism, and when the staff brought the third-year linebacker forward, he fitted in nicely.
Then came his injury, which he is still rehabilitating. Melton was expected to miss the entire spring but was instead restricted to single practices. The key is getting him healthy so he can race to the position at fall camp.
“He jumped out. He really did it to coach (Larry) Johnson and I,” Knowles said. “I just want to see him back there. I want to see: has he fully recovered? Is he healthy?”
Melton’s injury left Knowles with Sawyer and Javontae Jean-Baptiste to fill the position. Jean-Baptiste has since been transferred to Notre Dame. To help Sawyer focus on a role, Ohio State moved him back to a traditional defensive end.
Though Sawyer worked at two positions last season, he showed potential, leading Ohio State with 4 1/2 sacks and finishing the season with the team’s second-highest pressure rate, according to TruMedia: 13.4 percent, surpassed only by Zach Harrison’s 13.8 percent.
Even so, there were times when you thought Sawyer could be more dominant, and there is a thought within the team that Sawyer will be put on the defensive to help him reach his five-star potential.
“I feel like he didn’t have the improvement or the big leap that he could have made last year from getting into the Jack stuff,” Knowles said. “I want to make sure I keep him on the defensive against JT (Tuimoloau).”
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So where is the jack position?
Melton is the name we’ll hear the most as we head into preseason camp, but Knowles also mentioned linebacker CJ Hicks.
Hicks was the Class of 2022 award — the top linebacker that cycle and a top-10 player nationally. With Tommy Eichenberg’s surprise return and Cody Simon’s continued improvement, Hicks’ snaps at the linebacker might be limited. The jack position could be a change for him.
“I thought about it for CJ,” Knowles said. “When instructed, he is adept and can get from point A to point B quickly.”
Knowles doesn’t completely throw away the staple of his defense. He will continue to recruit for it and find ways to make it work in Ohio State.
But in the meantime, until Melton gets well and the spring schedule takes care of itself, conversations can be interrupted.
(Photo by Jack Sawyer: Joseph Maiorana / USA Today)