Ohio State should have options at suddenly crowded safety position

COLUMBUS, Ohio — New Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is also the team’s linebackers coach, but he’s not shy about bragging about a “safety-focused” defensive philosophy. Knowles’ typical 4-2-5 formation uses three safeties — fitter, bandit, and nickel — and strives for the kind of versatility that can combat modern college football offenses.

That’s what allowed Knowles to develop a top-five defense at Oklahoma State last season.

“When you adapt to the college game and the spread (of offenses) and full speed on the field, you have to be multifaceted in your disguises, appearances, covers, where the safeties fit into the running game,” Knowles said last week. . “And to do that, you need a fast, athletic group of guys who are also ready to punch and be physical. This is why I think the development of the security posture within the program is so critical.

Knowles sees safety as the backbone of his unit, a positional group that can morph and adapt as needed to different opponents while staying true to the core elements of its defensive scheme. Safety was a concern for the Buckeyes last season, in part because of injuries. But Knowles and first-year safety coach Perry Eliano suddenly seem packed with talent and versatility in all three places. The question now is how they intend to use it.

Knowles said he’s not too fond of spinning in the secondary, but speaking with the media last week, he couldn’t help but praise and highlight a number of different defensive backs for the “variability” they offer the Buckeyes.

With less than three weeks to go before a blockbuster season-opening battle with Notre Dame, the trio of starters feel pretty well prepared barring injury or a major upset. Fourth-year safety Ronnie Hickman, who led Ohio State in tackles last season from the strong safety position and earned all-conference recognition, smoothly transitioned to what Knowles calls the adjuster, which is more of a free security. Hickman’s veteran background and football IQ made him an ideal candidate.

“Ronnie is more the vocal leader and the guy who runs things from the middle, in terms of adjustments. He does a great job,” Knowles said. “That’s why we call Ronnie’s position the fitter. He’s starting to really see it, learn it, and be able to put us in the right formation. … He’s locked up, Iron Buckeye, it’s who you want to be that fitter.


Josh Proctor appears to be the favorite to start in the bandit spot for Ohio State after recovering from a broken leg he suffered last year against Oregon. (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCalister has the nickel advantage and has four seasons of experience in Knowles’ system with the Cowboys. And while he may not have the same degree of pre-break responsibility as someone like Hickman, McCalister is arguably the most important piece of the safety puzzle for the Buckeyes because of the institutional knowledge that he brings with him, an extension on the land of Knowles. ‘ new philosophy.

“He has improved. That’s why he came here,” Knowles said. “He plays the best (receivers) in the country every day, and the best offense, and he’s raised his level a lot just by playing those guys every day.”

Josh Proctor’s broken leg suffered in Week 2 against Oregon last season was part of Ohio State’s 2021 safety concerns, but the fifth-year senior is back healthy and looks be the favorite to start at the border bandit’s spot. field. Knowles barely mentioned Proctor last week, and when he did, his comments were brief but telling.

“Proctor, the sky’s the limit. He’s progressing very quickly,” Knowles said. “Very talented. He could be the best in the country.

In fact, it was apparently the second-team safeties that Knowles seemed to highlight the most, especially Kourt Williams II. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound second from California is likely behind Proctor at both depths, but he’s someone Knowles is experimenting with as a bigger, more physical presence in the box for specific games, in the mold. of the old “bullet” hybrid set.

“It makes a big difference to have that type of player. We should be able to adapt with him to bigger sets, maybe without putting in another linebacker,” Knowles said. “I saw ( hybrid players like that) over the years, but not at Kourt’s level. I think it can be awesome.

There was a similar comment about Lathan Ransom, who recovered with impressive speed after a nasty broken leg suffered in the Rose Bowl win over Utah. After rehabbing in spring training, Knowles was encouraged by Ransom at the start of preseason. He’s likely behind Hickman at trimmer, but has some of the same hybrid skills as Williams.

“A guy like Lathan, he’s good at pulling the trigger. He can see things and really react,” Knowles said. “We’re really trying to find a way to get him involved, with Kourt. You can see packs with different safeties in the game because of how I feel Lathan and Kourt are moving forward, especially in the running game. Because that they can hit.

For a coordinator who might not prefer to rotate, Knowles certainly seems open to creating custom roles that would allow for some fluidity when switching between the standard 4-2-5 base and a more traditional 4-3 base against opponents. heavier – including, potentially, Notre Dame. Instead of going with three linebackers, which Knowles said coaches have also experimented with, using hybrid safeties maintains that ability to be multiple and disruptive without having to substitute or be susceptible to coverage mismatches.

“If you have a safety in there (as opposed to three linebackers), you always look like you’re in your base defense, so the offense doesn’t quite know what to expect,” Knowles said. . “But when you substitute, your plan now becomes limited. If you keep your base people or one version, you have a better opportunity to be multiple.

The flexibility extends to the nickel position, with sophomore Cameron Martinez working behind McCalister but also taking snaps at cornerback, where the Buckeyes’ depth is rather thin. Redshirt freshman safety Jantzen Dunn also worked at cornerback, with Knowles pointing to the need to “double up” players at both positions due to ongoing depth issues at the corner. It’s also where having a position coach like Eliano at safety can pay dividends, given he comes to Ohio State after two seasons in Cincinnati, where he helped develop the best college football cornerback duo last season at Sauce Gardner, a top-five NFL draft pick. pick, and Coby Bryant, the Jim Thorpe Award winner.

Despite patching things up for much of 2021, the Buckeyes find themselves spilling the wealth when it comes to safety this year, and some of the more intriguing options will still struggle to crack the two deep. A true freshman and first registrant, Kye Stokes was one of the stars of the spring game as Proctor and Ransom recovered to full health, and Stokes was the first member of the recruiting class of 2022 to lose his black band.

Real freshman Sonny Styles is another name to watch who is buried in the depth chart at the moment. Despite the fact that the Pickerington Central product has been reclassified in Class of 2022 and won’t turn 18 until November – meaning he was originally scheduled to start his senior year of high school this month – Styles is built like a man adult at 6-4 and 220 pounds and is already earning rave reviews from trainers and teammates.

“He’s raw talent. His physicals are insane,” linebacker Cody Simon said. “He is learning defense like everyone else. He’s just doing what freshmen do, trying to get his head in there and make a few plays.

Knowles wouldn’t point a finger as to where Styles would fit best in the security room, slyly declaring, “Too early to tell. It’s going to be a secret weapon. But he also didn’t hold back the hype.

“I love Sonny, he’s great. He’s a guy who studies, learns, is always there. He literally snatched the ball from the running back the other day. Playmaker,” Knowles said. don’t want to put too much on him right now because I want to bring him into the mainstream, but as far as the future goes, it’s going to be brilliant and a lot of fun.”

How soon will that future come for Styles and some of the other depth plays will be worth watching. Injuries can still be factored in, as they did last season, and one has to assume the program would feel much better adapting to those scenarios this time around. But Knowles also embraced the heightened expectations and accelerated deadlines endemic to the state of Ohio. Will it inspire him to change his usual approach and get creative with security?

The apparent abundance of talent at what has been considered the most important position in Knowles’ system could allow these three points of safety to be an area of ​​strength and experimentation for the Buckeyes’ defense in 2022.

(Ronnie Hickman top photo: Joseph Maiorana/USA Today)

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