COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — It’s no secret. The big plays Ohio State allowed on defense last year were glaring and kept them from winning a national championship.

“The next step and evolution of this defense really starts in the back end,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “We all know last year and how things went, and everywhere I’ve been, it’s kind of taken me time to get the back end up to having that confidence to compete.”

Implementing a defense takes time. But what can speed up that timeline? Oddly enough, the answer might be the Buckeyes linebackers.

“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. “But I can’t do that just that week. I think I have to have more of a bigger view.”

Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg allow Knowles to have that bigger view. The returning starting linebackers, who took more than 90% of the snaps in 2022, won’t need as much direction, which frees up Knowles to implement his bigger view.

“I feel like last year I was more into the teaching aspect of it to make sure that we got it and understood it,” Knowles said. “Now we understand it. I need to ramp up the accountability for competing in practice one-on-one in all those spots, because every practice for us is like a game. … We need to perform better in practice against our offense.”

Part of performing better in practice is creating more competition, something Knowles and coach Ryan Day did when they brought transfer cornerback Davison Igbinosun from Ole Miss and safety Ja’Had Carter from Syracuse.

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

Knowles also wants that pressure to be on returning starters like Chambers and Eichenberg.

“Yeah I definitely want to rotate them more,” he said. “With Tommy out this spring, Cody’s [Simon] going to have a big spring and he’s going to put himself in a position to play regularly.”

Having the same two starters back makes Knowles’ life easier when it comes to the defense. But it also presents the challenge of figuring out what to do with the other talented linebackers who may not get snaps because of Chambers and Eichenberg being back. The most interesting example is C.J. Hicks, the No. 1-ranked linebacker and player in Ohio for the class of 2022.

“I think when you’re five-star Mr. Everything, it’s challenging to come into a top-five program and not play right away but he handled it really well,” Knowles said. “C.J.’s situation is different because there’s a couple guys coming back, there’s a lot of experience there. … I’m really just looking for improvement from C.J. I’m not putting any pressure on him. I’m just looking for him to improve this spring. I know he’s going to have a great career but I haven’t put any kind of timeline on him yet.”

Although Knowles hasn’t thought about a timeline for Hicks, he has considered putting him at the “Jack” position — a hybrid between linebacker and defensive end.

“I have thought about that for C.J. because when directed he’s skilled and he can get from Point A to Point B quickly,” Knowles said. “I don’t know how much we’ll be delving into the Jack this spring, but I think it is something good to look at for C.J. for the fall.”

Mitchell Melton is another player who could take on the “Jack” role, but he will continue to be limited in the spring as he returns from a torn ACL he suffered in last year’s spring game.

“I want to see him back to where he was. We moved him from linebacker to the front when I got here and then started experimenting with him in the ‘Jack’ position, and he jumped out. He jumped out,” Knowles said. “I want to see has he recovered completely? Is he healthy?”

Health is always an unknown going into a season. Just look at Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s lingering hamstring injury. But the Buckeyes were fine at wideout because of depth and that will be the case at linebacker this year as well.