COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — There has to be a leap from year one to year two. College coaches emphasize it all the time when talking about a freshman going into their sophomore season.

But what happens when the roles are reversed and a coach is going into his second year? Ohio State is about to find out as Jim Knowles gets the Buckeyes’ defense ready this spring. He was asked Tuesday whether there has been any noticeable difference in how fast the players are executing after a full year under his system.

“Yes, particularly in the back end. We’re getting our hands on more balls, we’re competing,” Knowles said. “This is a great offense, and we did not do our jobs in those matchup games that we needed to. In order to get better, we have to win against our offense.”

His logic is simple: If Ohio State can beat coach Ryan Day’s offense, it can beat anyone.

“We have to win in practice,” he said. “What I’m pushing and what I’m seeing are guys who are fighting more at the point of emphasis, where you have to make the play.”

Knowles has more time this season to see who’s making plays because of the addition of former Buckeyes All-American James Laurinaitis, who’s helping Knowles coach linebackers.

“James knows so much from playing in the NFL,” Knowles said. “He’s really picked things up extremely quick. He’s a professional.”

Knowles is looking for who can be a pro, especially in the secondary, where the Buckeyes struggled in their last two games against Michigan and Georgia, allowing a combined 661 yards and six touchdowns.

“Those areas where we let down in one-on-one matchups that were costly, I need to find ways to protect our guys better,” Knowles said.

One of the ways is to ramp up the competition this spring. It’s the reason Ohio State added Ole Miss cornerback Davison Igbinosun and Syracuse safety Ja’Had Carter as transfers.

“You bring in two guys like that, and it just pushes the other guys,” Knowles said. “They walk right in and they’re mature and they’re not messing around … and it pushes everyone.”

Knowles said Carter can play any of OSU’s three safety positions and that Igbinosun will compete for a starting job against Denzel Burke and Jordan Hancock. Jim Thorpe semifinalist Lathan Ransom returns at the “bandit” safety position, but no position is ever safe at Ohio State, which is why Knowles has Pickerington’s Sonny Styles practicing with the second team at bandit.

“I think everybody needs to feel that competition, so having Sonny there right now establishes a nice competition with him and Lathan,” Knowles said. “We think they both can play, and then it’s my job to find a way to get them both on the field.”

Competition is also a way to add depth, which is why Knowles and Day are experimenting with adding a third cornerback to occasionally serve as a nickelback, which has previously been played by a safety.

“We think a corner can do it. It’s not a place you have to be a hard, tough run defender,” Knowles said. “We can involve our corners there more, and we think that will give us more depth as the season goes along. We didn’t have a lot of depth at the nickel position last year when Cam [Martinez] was hurt a lot, so that will give us an increased ability to get those guys reps.”

Martinez returns to that role this season, and Knowles believes he can play it as long as the senior believes in himself.

“He’s got great feet. Cam’s got excellent feet. It reminds me of a guy we had at Duke, Michael Carter, who’s in the NFL,” Knowles said. “With Cam, it’s just all about confidence. It’s establishing that confidence. … He’s got all the tools. I’m seeing him get better every day.”

If Knowles decides to use a cornerback at the nickel position, he has plenty of options, including whoever doesn’t win the cornerback competition among Burke, Hancock and Igbinosun, as well as sophomores Jyaire Brown and Ryan Turner.