Ohio State football: Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles sheds some light on mysterious new position

COLUMBUS -- More than anything, new positions in the Ohio State defense are getting the most attention this spring.

In the first few days, three distinct spots in the secondary — “Bandit,” “Adjuster” and nickel — were identified and explained, but the “Leo” position remained mysterious.

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Defensive linemen deftly dodged most questions about it when it was their day to be interviewed, but new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was happy to talk about it Tuesday.

He also revealed it has a different name, at least for now.

“We put it in today, and I told them we’re not going to call it ‘Leo,’” Knowles said. “We’re gonna call it a ‘Jack’ for now because the Leo is the king of the jungle. So when you become the Leo, that’s a big deal because you can do what a defensive end does and you can do what a linebacker does. So right now it’s just more of what we call a Jack position.”

If that sounds confusing, it is.

But his explanation begins to make sense the deeper one digs into the entire concept.

While many defenses have a player known as a Jack linebacker (typically in a 3-4 scheme) or a Leo defensive end (in a 4-3), the position in Knowles’ scheme is unique.

Further muddying the waters is the fact Ohio State’s defense had a player known as the Leo during much of the Jim Tressel era. It was typically the lighter of the two ends and the one asked to drop into coverage if the Buckeyes dialed up a zone blitz. Dropping an end into coverage, either to replace a blitzing linebacker or to add an eighth man to the coverage, has been common for decades as a tactic to try to confuse quarterbacks and blocking schemes.

Initially that was not quite what Knowles wanted to do, though.

In fact, it was closer to the opposite: Rather than being used to create pressure on the passer, Knowles’ Leo was dreamed up as a way to gum up the ground game.

“It started definitely as a run scheme disruptor,” he said.

The intent is to take advantage of running games being designed to attack defenses specifically based on the way they line up. Offensive coordinators can do that because a 3-4 defense typically will begin by plugging certain gaps. A 4-3 will initially take away different spots, but generally both approaches add up to having everything covered one way or another and presenting the same number of people who need to be blocked.

Offenses generally determine who to block based on which offensive linemen have someone lined up over them or in the gap behind or in front of where the ball is supposed to go (“play side”).

Those rules being universal is something Knowles decided to try take advantage of by moving his fourth defensive lineman around and changing who needs to be blocked by whom.

“You talk to offensive coaches and they have to make different plans for three-down than four-down, so it starts as a run-game disruptor and then it goes to how to attack (pass) protections. Now all the sudden once you got the guy moving around, you got him different places, now you see how the offense adjusts to that and their schemes and you can come back with other things and counter in the passing game.”

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More than a static chess piece, Knowles also hopes to see the Jack evolve into someone who can do different things within the plan. That’s what makes him a Leo.

“That player’s productive in terms of the pass rush because I think they develop a mentality of being a wild card, being a guy who makes plays,” Knowles said. “I think it’s a great recruiting tool, but yeah, it started in the run game.”

Whatever you call it, the body type for the position appears to be familiar to the Leos of the Tressel days.

Knowles ticked off several candidates to play the Jack (and eventually the Leo): Jack Sawyer (6-4, 260), Javontae Jean-Baptiste (6-5, 255), Caden Curry (6-3, 250) and Palaie Gaoteote (6-2, 248).

All are in the mold of a bigger linebacker with the power to control a gap in the running game or a smaller end with the athleticism to play in coverage — and rushing the passer is a requirement either way.

“it’s just a matter of who’s best and who’s best up front also,” Knowles said.

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