Mark Znidar
Mark Znidar

Mark Znidar comes to Press Pros Magazine after 33 ½ years at The Columbus Dispatch. From 1996 until September 2018, he staffed high school sports, Ohio colleges that included the Mid-American Conference, Ohio State’s upcoming opponents in football and Ohio State baseball. In the previous three seasons he covered the Columbus Clippers triple-A baseball team. His other beats were Ohio State basketball (1985-88), Clippers (1985-86 and 1989-93), Cincinnati Bengals (1993-95) and NASCAR (1994-2008). He subbed on the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ohio State women’s basketball beats. In March 2017, Znidar was inducted into the Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame.  Znidar was born in Cleveland and raised in Richmond Heights. He graduated from Cleveland St. Joseph High School and the University of Dayton. He also worked for The Atlantic City Press, Lake County News-Herald and Baltimore News-American. He has a daughter, Amanda, and four grandchildren.

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Head coach Ryan Day blew up his defensive staff with the exception of line coach Larry Johnson after the unit fell on its face in showdown games against Oregon, Michigan and Utah.

Columbus, OH –  All of the chairs are filled inside the Ohio State football coaches’ offices, but what a wild ride it has been to get to this point with the beginning of spring practice just weeks away.

What head coach Ryan Day did to his staff, particularly on the defensive side, was akin to a demolition expert pushing down on the plunger.

Kaboom!

Since that bushwhacking at Ann Arbor in Game 12 of the 2021 season, Day let go defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, linebackers coach Al Washington Jr. and offensive line coach Greg Studrawa and hinted to de facto defensive coordinator Matt Barnes that he find employment elsewhere as Memphis defensive coordinator.

Before the Buckeyes left for the Rose Bowl to play Utah, he hired Jim Knowles away from Oklahoma State to be his new defensive coordinator.

Veteran columnist Mark Znidar writes the Buckeyes for Press Pros Magazine.com.

That move not only made Okie State coach Mike Gundy a little prickly down to the bottom of his mullet haircut, but cost the Ohio State athletic department $1.9 million per season in making Knowles the highest paid Ohio State assistant ever.

After the bowl victory, Day added titles to receivers coach Brian Hartline and running backs coach Tony Alford by making them passing game and running game coordinators.

He turned around and hired old friend Justin Frye from UCLA to be his offensive line coach and associate head coach.

Then he poached Perry Eliano from the University of Cincinnati to be his safeties coach and rescued former Buckeye Tim Walton from the ashes of the Urban Meyer fiasco with the Jacksonville Jaguars to be his cornerbacks coach.

“I felt like a fresh start was the right thing to do,’’ Day said of his defensive coaching room. “I felt like that’s kind of what we’ve been doing the last couple of years, tweaking it and bringing a guy in and moving a piece over here. I really wanted to start fresh and have a system in place so that when something goes wrong, there’s an answer to the system, that everybody believes in the system.”

Line coach Larry Johnson was the only defensive coach to be retained.

Knowles was one of approximately seven candidates to head the defense.

Day expressed great frustration about having to dig into the defense after a Week 2 loss to Oregon. That’s not his department.

Popular Larry Johnson was the only defensive coach retained from the 2021 staff.

What he wants is Knowles to be the head coach of the defense and him to be left alone to find more ways to score touchdowns with quarterback CJ Stroud.

“My job is to take that off his plate,’’ Knowles said. “I hope to take the stress away.’’

Knowles, 56, has built a pretty nice resume in college football, but admits he is on the spot to produce a defense that can get Ohio State back to winning the Big Ten championship and into the College Football Playoff.

“There is a lot of pressure,” Knowles said Monday. “I mean, that’s not lost on me. This is not an entry-level position, you know. To those that a lot has been given, a lot is expected.”

With Coombs or Barnes, the Buckeyes were unable to stop big plays and get off the field defensively. Oregon scored 35 points, Michigan 42 and Utah 45.

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Can Knowles fix this mess?

“I’ve had a good reputation of that,’’ he said.

And he, like everyone else in the program, is shooting for the moon.

“You want to be able to compete and play for a national championship on a regular basis,’’ Knowles said. “When anyone thinks about the best in college football, they think about Ohio State. And that goes for the coaching profession, too.’’

Knowles said the previous defensive staff wasn’t far off from getting the players to play in coordination.

Communication, he said, is imperative.

“That’s a big thing that I take responsibility for as a coordinator,” he said. “In order for the player to play fast, he has to know exactly what he’s doing. ‘Here’s what we do, here’s how why we do it, here’s why you should buy into it, this is what it could do for you, this is what it could do for our team.’’’

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Look for Ohio State to confuse offenses with stunts and blitzes and to rough them up physically. Knowles dislikes the term “defense’’ because it infers that a team is on its heels. He coaches as if its third down every down or the opponent is in the red zone.

“We want to be able to create indecision for the offense, particularly for the offensive coordinator,’’ Knowles said. “We want to be able to create multiple defenses out of simple looks and to be creative in a way the players understand. We want to create two to three simple pictures where if you look at it and the offensive coordinator looks at it, he can’t tell what’s going to happen from that picture.’’

Eliano just got off the greatest ride of his coaching life in helping Cincinnati win The American championship and become the first Group of 5 team to make the CFP.

But when Day called, Eliano came running. Not to anyone’s surprise, Coombs replaced him with the Bearcats.

“The expectation here is to win national championships, and I’m not afraid of that,’’ Eliano said.

He called himself “the ultimate competitor’’ and said his job is to “create opportunities for the players’’ because it’s their game.

“I just try to maximize our ability back there (at safety),’’ Eliano said. “I’m going to love them. I’m going to tell them I love them. We’re going on a journey, and we’re going on the journey together.’’

Walton played cornerback for Ohio State from 1990-93 and was on a Big Ten co-champion with Wisconsin as a senior.

As a coach, he has been everywhere with college stops at Bowling Green, Memphis, Syracuse, LSU and Miami as a cornerbacks coach and as coordinator at Memphis and Miami.

Since 2009, he coached in the NFL for Detroit, the St. Louis Rams, Giants and Jaguars.

“It was always a thought, but you know how it is,’’ Walton said of returning to Ohio State. “You take different paths and it has to line up. When it becomes a reality, it is a blessing. It worked out at the right time, and I am really excited about it.’’

His style is to build relationships with the players.

“If you have the relationship, that means you can teach them,’’ Walton said. “If you can teach them, they can get better.’’

He added, “That includes when you have to coach them hard.’’

It was difficult for Frye to leave his players at UCLA and take his family of six across the country.

But how could he turn this down?

“I would have sprinted out here instead of getting on a plane,’’ he said.

Frye didn’t say much about his title of associate head coach. That makes him more money, for one thing.

“We’re just doing ball,’’ he said. “No one wears a shirt with their title on it. I don’t need to come in here and make changes. I’m here to enhance. (Day) wants me to come in an maximize the guys, maximize the room. That’s what he knows what he’s getting in me.’’

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