Well, the Buckeyes started May off with a recruiting bang. And in a landscape that typically has very few surprises, 2022 Armwood (FL.) safety Kye Stokes gave the Ohio State market just that. Ohio State running back coach Tony Alford issued Stokes a scholarship on April 26th and just six short days later he committed to the Buckeyes.
He gave the Buckeyes their first safety commit in the 2022 class, and that was with top targets Xavier Nwankpa and Zion Branch still on the board. So the question that many Buckeye fans asked was “why did they take Stokes so early?” The answer is rather simple — he is a perfect fit. Both off and on the field.
Off the field, Stokes is a near 4.0 student and is in line to graduate early. On the field, he is a fast, rangy safety prospect that can play all over the defensive backfield and isn’t afraid to come down the field to make a tackle. Additionally, he is a converted wide receiver with advanced ball skills. Add all those traits up and you have a prototypical free safety prospect, and Ohio State likes those guys.
Now let’s look at Kye Stokes’ junior film to really see those traits in action.
Deep Centfielder at Safety:
A little cross-sport comparison to start off this section. In coverage, a single-high free safety is often asked to cover from sideline to sideline and let nothing get behind him.
Stokes has verified sub-11-second 100-meter dash speed so roaming sideline to sideline comes with ease for him. He also has a very natural feel for coverage which leads to big plays when coupled with his aforementioned wide receiver-like ball skills.
Here are three plays from Stokes junior season that show that blazing speed, understanding of coverage, and big-play ball skills.
- Play One: At the start of the play Stokes has lined up over top the slot receiver but he backs off after the snap. He drops into quarters coverage with middle of the field responsibilities as a safety. Stokes reads the slot breaking in on a dig route and he breaks on the ball for a pick-six.
- Play Two: Another play where he has lined up over top the innermost receiver in trips but drops into quarters coverage after the snap. The number two receiver once again breaks in but the quarterback overthrows him inside too much. Stokes steps up and picks off another pass because of his coverage intelligence and natural instincts.
- Play Three: This is the most centerfield-like play of these clips as Stokes is the lone safety in this cover one concept. The quarterback rolls back and looks to hit a wide receiver going down the sideline, but like a good free safety Stokes remains the deepest man. He drops all the way back and is actually able to run underneath the overthrow in the end zone for another interception.
If you’re going to be a free safety in Ohio State’s cover one and cover-three-heavy defense then you need to able to go sideline to sideline with ease, and play three shows that ability. Free safeties also need to be able to understand coverages and have the instincts to make the right play. Both the first and second plays show that. All three of the clips show that Stokes can make plays on the ball. We have heard that the Ohio State coaching staff ‘loves’ Stokes, and his skill as a centerfield-like safety makes it easy to see why.
Back End Eraser:
At any one time, Ohio State could have five to six defensive backs on the field. Naturally, with so many players having to work together, the occasional coverage lapse happens. In order to make sure those lapses don’t turn into touchdowns it is vital that they have a free safety that can make tackles as the last line of defense.
Despite being a converted wide receiver, Stokes is more than willing to come upfield and lay the hammer down. Ohio State’s free safeties have to be sure tackles and he fits that description. Stokes has the ability to erase any mistake made in the backend of the defense.
- Play One: Lined up in more of a slot corner or box safety this first play shows just how willing Stokes is as a tackler. The running back runs through the linebacker and the defensive end and he is there to fill the gap. Stokes lays the wood on the ball carrier and drops him for a loss, quickly erasing a big hole.
- Play Two: Here Stokes starts out as the deepest man on the field, he isn’t even on the screen at the start of the play. However, he still chases down the running back out of the flat before anyone else can get him and he causes a fumble.
- Play Three: This third play is one that Stokes may have to make during his time in Columbus. With everyone else in man coverage and the defensive linemen out of their pass rush lanes, the quarterback gets a free lane out of the pocket. With nothing but green grass in front of him, it looks like a big play is coming but Stokes flies upfield to make the open field tackle short of the first down marker.
Ohio State fans know all too well what it is like to not have a sure tackler in the back end. Especially when you play a lot of man coverage. This Buckeye’s defense needs a free safety who can erase any lapses in coverage and Stokes has that ability.
Versatility in Coverage:
On occasion in college football teams get out schemed and they get caught with the ‘wrong’ personnel on the field. As a result, teams look for players with versatility that can make up for potentially being out schemed. In summary, teams want safeties that can play cornerback in a pinch and vice versa.
All throughout Stokes junior film are clips of him covering the slot receiver, and he made plays while doing so. Having versatile coverage players all throughout the defensive back end is what colleges want and it is yet another reason why Ohio State loves Stokes.
- Play One: To start, Stokes is lined up in man to man against what looks like an H-back near the goal line. He is playing off so the receiver gets a free release and tries to beat him to the back pylon, but Stokes is in hip the entire play and comes up with another interception.
- Play Two: Here Stokes is in more of the traditional slot corner position and once again he is in off coverage so the receiver gets a free release. The corner goes running a slant but Stokes runs it better than he does and with the over-thrown ball Stokes picks off another pass.
- Play Three: Another slot corner play here, the same thing — off coverage so the receiver is free off the line. This time the receiver runs a deeper in-breaking route but can not shake Stokes. He is all over him and as soon as the ball gets there he is able to break up the pass.
More than ever college teams want defensive backs that can cover any pass-catcher, whether it is out wide, in the slot, or even out of the backfield. Stokes’ film shows that he can do all of that and with a nose for the ball as well.
In the end, for all the people that were caught off guard by Stokes commitment and asked “why did they take Stokes so early?” remember four things. He can play sideline to sideline with ease. He is more than willing to come downfield to lay the wood and is a sure tackler that can erase coverage lapse. He can also cover essentially any pass catcher the offense tries to match up against him. And finally, he just has some special instincts that lead to a lot of turnovers and broken-up passes.
When you combine his size, athleticism, and instincts for the game you begin to wonder why the Buckeyes did not offer him sooner. Stokes ceiling is sky-high in Ohio State’s defense.