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Column: Jim Knowles' defense has the perfect make up for the Big 12

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OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles speaks to media members during a press conference at Embassy Suites in Memphis, Tennessee on Dec. 28, 2018. 

Big 12, defense — two words that are sure to elicit a chuckle when used in the same sentence.

We’ve all heard it before — the Big 12 sucks at defense, the Big 12 leaks points, the Big 12 is just an offensive league.

While some have tried to debate otherwise citing that the offensive weapons are so strong in the conference, it makes defenses look worse. Whether that’s right or wrong, the fact is, it’s tough being a defensive coordinator in the Big 12 — a lot of points will be scored.

Jim Knowles learned that quickly.

When the third-year Oklahoma State defensive coordinator took the job in Stillwater, his defense got burned — repeatedly.

Knowles, who was the DC at Duke in the ACC the previous season, coached the No. 22 ranked defense in the country in 2017. The next year at OSU, the Cowboys ranked No. 97.

The aggressive style Knowles intended to bring to OSU led to good things — namely high sacks numbers in 2018 — but with the bevy of weapons it was going against, the overall numbers weren’t pretty.

In 2019, Knowles really adjusted and made this defense into a formidable force — in relative terms.

No one is expecting OSU to come out and shut down opponents the way Alabama or Georgia will, but the Cowboys need to do enough on defense to put this offense in a position to win — and sometimes close out games on the strength of the offense.

A prime example? The 34-27 victory against Iowa State.

While OSU was in control for most of the game, the offense began to sputter in the fourth quarter. After ISU scored with about nine minutes left and the score was 27-27, the Cowboys went three-and-out. Then Malcolm Rodriguez had an interception returned for a touchdown.

The next drive, OSU stopped and forced another three-and-out. Then the Cowboys, who had the ball near midfield, went for it fourth down, which resulted in a turnover on downs. ISU gets the ball with 2:43 left, down by seven.

Two plays later, the Cowboys get another interception. But instead of bleeding the clock out, OSU went three-and-out again. Iowa State had one last shot to score — albeit with 32 seconds.

OSU’s defense stepped up one last time and grabbed another interception to close out the game.

That whole sequence shows you how the Cowboys’ defense stepped up when it needed to. And that’s what OSU will need in 2020.

We’ve all heard the narrative with Tylan Wallace and Chuba Hubbard returning along with Spencer Sanders taking a step forward this season, but the defense is going to be equally crucial.

OSU has all but one of its defensive starters returning. While the loss of cornerback A.J. Green, who signed with the Cleveland Browns, does hurt, this defense is more than equipped to take on the Big 12.

The No. 1 reason? Versatility.

It’s filtered in throughout the entire roster. Knowles implemented a 4-2-5 scheme on defense, but that’s almost transformed into a 3-3-5 package with one of those four defensive linemen hovering as a “Leo” — a hybrid between a linebacker and defensive end.

On that deep defensive line, true freshman Trace Ford emerged as the Leo. With his strength, athleticism and skillset, Ford is able to line up at defensive end, middle linebacker, even as a slot cornerback. And backup Brock Martin has even played in the same capacity.

Then at linebacker, you have All-Big 12 selections Malcolm Rodriguez and Amen Ogbongbemiga. Both are sure-fire tacklers, both racking up 100-plus last year. Ogbonbegia also led this team with 15.5 tackles for loss last season.

Rodriguez, who converted from safety, may not have prototypical size as a linebacker, but his strength and athleticism allow him to shoot gaps, track ball carriers and make plays. Then his defensive back-prowess gives you the luxury of putting him on a slot receiver, a tight end or running back.

That sort of versatility helps you mix up coverages, schemes and play calls — because you don’t need to change personnel.

Still, with a light box of only six guys, there may be some worry when it comes to stopping the run. But that’s where the safeties come into play.

With a pairing of top-10 safeties Kolby Harvell-Peel and Tre Sterling along with the underrated Jarrick Bernard, there’s not only gobs of talent, there’s scheme versatility.

Sterling played all over the field — in the box, in the slot, at free safety — and excelled in all facets. Harvell-Pell was a ball-hawking “center fielder” as the deep safety, but he also showed the range and instincts to break on the ball and blow up plays. And Bernard played a lot of inside corner along with his normal safety duties.

But with these safeties, you didn’t need to put in heavier packages to necessarily stop the run, you had guys who had the power and athleticism to do so. It gave Knowles the versatility to be in a nickel defense at any and all times.

Why is that important? Simply put, it’s Big 12.

With these raging passing attacks, OSU can be prepared to drop eight into coverage or rush eight into the box — it can stop the run or stop the deep ball with the same package.

The fact you can have four defensive linemen out there, only rush three and have Trace Ford drop into coverage, is a huge luxury. It allows OSU to be able to face a daunting passing attack without giving up yards on the ground.

With all these athletic, versatile pieces, the Cowboys can do so many different schematic things.

For example, there were many plays where they stacked eight in the box, only to pull four or five of them back in coverage — because they have the athleticism to get back to the spot without getting burned.

I think every defensive coordinator in the Big 12 would go nickel almost every play if they could. With the dangerous weapons at receiver in this conference, containing them is priority No. 1. The issue is, if you do that, you give up a lot of size in the box.

OSU has the pieces to make up for that. Knowles has constructed this system the right way, and we saw this defense really come together to end last season.

It’s set to be even better in 2020.

sports.ed@ocolly.com