Tramel: Give Mike Gundy credit for decision to hire Jim Knowles as OSU defensive coordinator
Mike Gundy had a gut feeling. That’s standard for football coaches.
When to switch quarterbacks. How to discipline a troubled player. When to onside kick. How hard to hit in practice. When to go for two.
Decisions, decisions, often made by instinct. We wouldn’t want coaches any other way. Follow protocol, stick to a script, and you end up removing sweet-throwing Blake Snell from the sixth inning of a must-win World Series game.
“Might be right, might be wrong,” Gundy said of his hunches.
But give Gundy credit. Twice now in the last eight years, he’s gone against convention and fired a successful defensive coordinator. Bill Young, one year after the 2011 Big 12 championship season, and Glenn Spencer, after two straight seasons of upper-division defense, which in Stillwater is no small thing.
Neither time did Gundy’s decision make sense to most of us. But both times, it worked out smashingly.
In 2013, Spencer’s first season as coordinator, the Cowboys had the Big 12’s best defense. And now, in Jim Knowles’ third year as coordinator, OSU has a defense that not only is the Big 12’s best but is the primary reason the Cowboys are a College Football Playoff contender.
“I really like how Jim’s adjusted to this league,” Gundy said. “We’re going to play teams that are really skilled on the perimeter. Covering eligible receivers is a big deal for us. We’ve covered well.”
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Knowles has a brainiac pedigree. He was head coach at Cornell of the Ivy League, then his complicated Duke defenses were excellent, against a steady stream of mediocre Atlantic Coast Conference offenses and with, apparently, a bunch of really smart players. Remember, it was Duke.
But turns out, there are smart players in Stillwater, too.
The Cowboys host Texas on Saturday, and Longhorn coach Tom Herman praised the OSU defense for its complexity. Complexity often can cause trouble for a college defense, but the Cowboys have thrived in Knowles’ 4-2-5 scheme.
“They’ve got great players,” Herman said. “Their scheme is very very complex. Their defensive coordinator does a great job.”
Nine of OSU’s 11 starters are juniors or seniors. Five are redshirts.
“So you’ve got a bunch of fourth- and fifth-year guys that have been in the same system for years and years,” Herman said. “They’re all older, they’re all developed and they’ve all been in the same system for years.”
Well, three years, anyway.
“His scheme is brilliant,” safety Tre Sterling said. “It’s genius.”
Sterling, a fourth-year junior, has talked defense with Knowles, how this OSU defensive philosophy has evolved over two decades.
“I like the fact that he’ll keep it real,” Sterling said. “He’s not going to sugarcoat anything. He’ll give you a chance to speak back. I think that’s important to have in a coach, not just someone constantly nagging, screaming at you.”
Gundy deserves credit. I was and remain a huge Glenn Spencer fan. Bill Young, too. I didn’t like either decision. But those gut feelings turned out great for OSU football.
“Bill Young is a really good football coach,” Gundy said. “Glenn Spencer’s the same way. Both of those coaches fell victim to unbelievable offensive play in this league and unbelievable quarterback play.
“Unfortunately, there gets to be a point where, in my opinion, everything flattened out. We needed some new energy. Those guys just got caught up in that. We just needed a change, needed some new blood.”
Here’s an example. After his first season at OSU, in 2017, Sterling was not so popular. He himself is the source for that information.
“I came in kind of cocky, wanting to know why I’m not playing,” Sterling said. “Stuff like that. So I didn’t start off very well with Spencer. I wasn’t the most liked player on the team.
“When Knowles came in, I kind of saw it as an opportunity to have a fresh start, make a better impression.”
A new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, a new position coach, they all sort of hit the reset button. Everyone gets a fresh start.
There’s a tradeoff, of course. New coaches must earn a player’s trust. A switch can make things worse instead of better.
But in Stillwater, it fell on the side of better.
“I think we’re starting to trust him more,” defensive tackle Cameron Murray said of Knowles. “I feel like guys at first didn’t trust his system. But guys now are really trusting him. He’s putting a lot of guys in position to make plays.”
Give Knowles credit. But give Gundy credit, too. His gut was right again.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.