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The 15 most important assistant coaching hires of 2022 -- No. 1: Jim Knowles, Ohio State

The climb from Ohio State to Cornell was a long one for Jim Knowles. Now that he's at the mountaintop, the objective is clear: "Win every single game."

Who: Jim Knowles, Ohio State

Title: Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach

Previous stop: Oklahoma State defensive coordinator (2018-21)

Why he's important: The date was Dec. 23, 2009, when Jim Knowles's life changed for the better.

Knowles was 45 years old at the time, and a month prior he'd finished his sixth season as the head coach at his alma mater, Cornell. The 2009 season wasn't a good one. The Big Red went 2-8 (losing all eight games after a 2-0 start), dropping Knowles's mark to 26-34 overall and 16-26 in Ivy League play. 

To that point, Knowles had spent the entirety of his adult life in college football but just one of them at a Power 5 institution. 

But it just so happened that the one year Knowles spent in the big time, 2003, was on David Cutcliffe's staff at Ole Miss. The Rebels were really good that year. Led by Eli Manning, Ole Miss played eventual national champion LSU to the wire in what was effectively the SEC West championship game and beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. Having begun that season unranked, Ole Miss finished 2003 as the AP's No. 13 team, its highest year-end ranking since 1971.

And so when Mike McIntyre left Cutcliffe's Duke staff to become the head coach at San Jose State, Cutcliffe pursued Knowles as his replacement. The pitch likely wasn't a difficult one -- an escape hatch from a moribund program to the ACC, certainly with a raise to boot.

“We are thrilled to have coach Knowles rejoin our staff,” Cutcliffe said at the time. “His understanding of defensive football is at the head of the class and our players will enjoy playing under his leadership. His experience as a head coach certainly will pay dividends within our program, and on top of his coaching abilities, we know he’ll be a great fit on our staff because we’re so familiar with each other.”

It wasn't always smooth sailing on the high seas for Knowles. He inherited a defense that finished 2009 a perfectly average 61st in yards per play. In 2010, Duke finished 108th. The Blue Devils improved to 77th by the ACC Coastal championship season of 2013 and, in four of Knowles's final five seasons, Duke was among the top 50 nationally.

Knowles left Duke for Oklahoma State in 2018. Upon inheriting a 56th-ranked yards per play defense, the Cowboys finished... 99th in his first season. And then 81st in 2019. And then 32nd in 2020. And then fifth in 2021. 

With more than a decade's worth of sample size, we can say with confidence that Jim Knowles how to design and implement a scheme that will maximize his program's resources. In time. Year one, though, tends to be the clean break, the tear down before the rebuild.

But what if you're a program with the most explosive offense in college football? The possibility of fielding the absolute best defense in college football by 2025 or '26 has to be intoxicating, but Ohio State has the offense to win a national title in 2022, so long as the defense merely carries 80 percent of its weight. Any Buckeye fan who sees Knowles's Year One numbers at Duke and Oklahoma State has to be at least a little bit concerned if they're honest with themselves.

PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS: No. 15 Tim DeRutyer (Texas Tech); No. 14 Rob Sale (Florida); No. 13 Joe Gillespie (TCU); No. 12: Brennan Marion (Texas); No. 11: Derek Mason (Oklahoma State); No. 10: Eric Kiesau (Auburn); No. 9: Mike Denbrock (LSU); Jesse Minter (Michigan); No. 7: Mark Whipple (Nebraska); No. 6: Josh Henson (USC); No. 5: Jeff Lebby (Oklahoma); No. 4: Josh Gattis (Miami); No. 3: Wes Goodwin (Clemson); No. 2: DJ Durkin (Texas A&M).

However, there is an asterisk here. A giant, blinking, buzzing, scarlet and gray asterisk. Ohio State is not Duke, and Ohio State is not Oklahoma State. Knowles was a general contractor trying to build a 4-bedroom house with matchsticks for wall studs and tissues for drywall compared to what he has at Ohio State. What took years to build in Durham and Stillwater should, in theory, take weeks in Columbus.

Ohio State's projected 2-deep on defense includes 5-stars Zach Harrision, Jack Sawyer, JT Tuimoloau and Taron Vincent , plus top-100 recruits Mike Hall, Jordan Hancock, JK Johnson, Teradja Mitchell and Josh Proctor. Only a handful of defenders will hit the field for Ohio State this fall that weren't rated 4-stars or higher at any point this fall. 

And it's not as if Ohio State was an abject disaster on defense last season. The Bucks finished 43rd in yards per play, a respectable 38th in scoring, 50th in pass efficiency defense, and top 45 in tackles for loss and sacks. They even tied for 33rd in yards per carry allowed. 

Where Ohio State struggled was on third down -- 42.08 percent, 100th in FBS -- and in defending teams with multi-faceted run games backed by powerful offensive lines. Akron, Maryland, Indiana and even Penn State had no chance against this defense. But Oregon and Michigan averaged more than seven yards a pop at 40 carries apiece. The Buckeyes were driven into the Ann Arbor snow; a Wolverine crossed the goal line with the ball in hand six times. 

From that perspective, Knowles was the perfect hire. Oklahoma State was fifth against the run, limiting opponents to 87.6 yards per game on 2.71 a carry. No Cowboy opponent averaged more than 4.3 yards a carry. Knowles's Cowboys led the nation with 4.0 sacks and 8.36 TFLs per game. As a consequence, Oklahoma State was third on third down, surrendering just 59 conversions on 206 attempts. 

Surely, Knowles can get out of Sawyer and Tuimoloau what he got out of OK State studs Collin Oliver and Brock Martin (19.5 sacks and 29.5 TFLs combined in 2021), right? Or at least something close to it?

"This defense has enabled us to fly around and make plays," Sawyer said this week. "When you get a bunch of athletes like we have on the defensive side of the ball and unleash us, a bunch of good stuff happens.”

It's been a long, steady climb from Cornell, and Knowles appreciates every step. 

An elite-of-the-elite defense in 2025 sounds fantastic, but what Ohio State needs most is a defense that will simply play up to its talent level week-in, week-out, and it needs it immediately. CJ Stroud and Jaxon Smtih-Njigba won't be in scarlet and gray next year.

“There is a lot of pressure on me, that’s not lost on me. This is not an entry level position,” Knowles said during his introductory press conference back in February. “To those that a lot has been given, a lot is expected. I went into Oklahoma State really believing that when we could get the defense to rise to the level and the culture of the offense and the things that they did off the field and in the weight room, that we’d be able to compete for a national championship. At Oklahoma State we were what, two feet short this year? But it took four years.

“It’s not lost on me that I don’t have four years here. This program is ready to win every single game right now, and we have to get the defense to that level.”