Now he is ready to start focusing on using what his new players know to prepare for the Fighting Irish and the rest of the schedule after that.
“As I’ve said since the spring and then again here in fall camp, (we’re) farther than I would have expected, and the players are very open to learning,” said Knowles, who interjected the idea they are motivated by past failures. “They want to be great, so that part of it has been exciting.
“We’ve been able to get a lot in, but we’re going to have to start to pare it back and get specific to our opponent.”
In 14 years as a defensive coordinator at Western Michigan, Duke and Oklahoma State, Knowles has developed a reputation as a man with a plan for all situations.
He says he wants to take the fight to the offense rather than be stuck reacting to what the opponent is doing, though there is an art to knowing when to put something in.
“I don’t like to spring things that are brand new on the players as they’re preparing for an opponent,” he said. “My philosophy is get in as much as you can and have enough so you have answers. I think we’ve always been good in the second half (of games), and it’s not because we’re creating new things, it’s because we’re pulling from a tool chest that has answers in it and they’re aware of it and they know how it works.”
Knowles also expressed optimism about the cornerback position, where some injury issues were present the last time he spoke to reporters near the start of preseason practice.
“I do feel better about that because today we were out there and we had almost our full complement,” he said.
As tends to happen in football, one man’s issue was another’s opportunity.
Knowles confirmed JK Johnson, a freshman from Missouri who redshirted with an injury last year, and Jyaire Brown, a true freshman from Lakota West, got valuable experience working against Ohio State’s talented receiving corps while some of the older cornerbacks were out.
“But we have our top guys back now and it does give you a lot of confidence when they’re out there because they can change the game in terms of coverage,” Knowles said.
If the coordinator can rely on the cornerbacks to lock up the outside receivers in man coverage, he has more options for deploying the rest of the unit.
That includes letting the defensive line play aggressively despite an adjustment to their techniques from last season that has them more focused on block destruction than simply getting up the field.
“Yes, I want them to hold their gap and hunker down at times when it comes to that, but for the most part, I want them to be aggressive,” Knowles said.
“You know, our philosophy is let those guys go. Let ‘em create problems for the offensive line in terms of how they move. The stunts that they run, or the straight-ahead attack, the way that we do things with the package
“The whole goal is to put the offensive linemen, the offense, kind of on their heels, so when they step they don’t quite know what they’re gonna get. It’s that brief second of indecision that allows our guys to attack and create a new line of scrimmage.”