Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has said that this Buckeye defense is going to be driven by the safeties, and while football may start up front, it will be the back end that keeps everything under control.
Fortunately for Ohio State, they return nearly all of their safety contributors from last season, including a returning-from-injury Josh Proctor. They also ventured into the transfer portal and added Tanner McCalister, who was a two-year starter at Oklahoma State, as well as a pair of talented freshmen in Sonny Styles and Kye Stokes. Styles was ranked the No. 1 safety in the 2022 class and Stokes is already making noise this spring as a ball hawk.
Chief among the returnees this year is Ronnie Hickman. Hickman played strong safety last year and led the Buckeyes with 98 tackles. He has moved to free safety, however, which is a position that Knowles refers to as “The Adjuster.”
At free safety, Hickman has an abundance of responsibility. He’s like the guy who steers the back end of a fire truck, but instead of putting out fires, he’s trying to set them.
Kourt Williams got a nice taste of the action late last season and it’s unlikely that he’ll be satisfied with what he’s already done. Lathan Ransom and Jantzen Dunn will eventually return from injury. Bryson Shaw started in place of Proctor last season and his experience will prove valuable for him this season and beyond.
Proctor, meanwhile, is slowly being brought back from a broken leg in the second game of the season last year. He got some action at the boundary safety (aka strong safety, aka “Bandit”) in 7-on-7 during Saturday’s practice, but he’s not full go yet. In fact, earlier in the week Knowles was asked about Proctor and didn’t have much to go on.
“Yeah, I haven’t seen him really do anything,” Knowles said. “We need him. We want him. I’ve seen film on him from last year. He’s a guy that can really change the game. He’s what we want at safety. So I just want him to get healthy.”
Proctor’s range allows him to cover a ton of ground and his physicality allows him to bury people in it. Expectations have been high for Proctor since he signed with the Buckeyes back in 2018.
Expectations are also high for the 6-foot-4 and 215-pound Sonny Styles, who most believed would end up at linebacker for the Buckeyes. That may eventually happen, but not until Knowles sees what Styles can do at safety when he arrives this summer.
“Yeah. Sonny will start at safety. I mean, he’ll begin his career at safety at least,” he said. “We want to give him a shot to do that. He’s big and rangy. Till I get to see what he can do.”
In the meantime, Knowles is getting a good, long look at the guys who are already on the team. He has only been at Ohio State for a few months, but from just about the day he arrived, he’s been impressed by Hickman
“Well, I mean, I love Ronnie Hickman,” he said. “I think he’s got the skill. I think he’s got the savvy. I just think he’s a great piece in the middle there to run the show back there. I just like the way he plays and handles his business.”
Even though there is still two weeks of spring practice to go and then an entire summer and fall camp, it sure seems like Hickman has locked in a spot in Knowles’ defense. That wasn’t unexpected, but Hickman ending up at free safety may have been a bit of a surprise.
That is unless you consider that Kourt Williams is also on hand and when given an opportunity last season he was quite productive. He finished with 28 tackles and four tackles for loss, but 13 of those tackles and three of those TFLs came late in the season against Michigan State and Utah.
Williams is very much a candidate for the Bandit safety spot, provided he can hold up against the pass.
“Kourt, I think is an excellent leader,” Knowles said. “We’re going to continue to look at him in terms of the matchups that he may face from wide receivers, because if anything he needs to improve, it’s that, and I got to make sure I put him in good positions. But I know I can go with him. I know I can trust him. And I know that he’s going to give everything and that it’s a matter of me to put him in the right position.”
The betting favorite to start alongside Hickman this season may fluctuate back and forth between Williams and Proctor, but expect all three to play. And while this is a defense that starts three safeties, don’t expect any of the three to be in the mix at the nickel safety spot. That’s a spot that has so far been reserved for McCalister, Cameron Martinez, and Lejond Cavazos.
“I think our nickels are really solid with Tanner, who understands everything about me and the scheme, and with Cam, and Lejond’s been playing there too,” Knowles said. “I think we’ve got some impressive nickel play.”
The depth at nickel seems fairly evident, but Knowles wants the other two safety positions to build some depth, especially with Proctor being slowed and Ransom being out much longer. Spring will help to make that happen, but the sooner everybody gets fully healthy, the faster this defense is going to go.