Now that spring football is over, it’s time to look back at exactly what we just saw. We’ll continue going over each position group for the next two weeks discussing what was learned and what still needs to happen for the Buckeyes. Up next will be the Ohio State safeties.
Quick Position Overview
Ronnie Hickman is the only starting safety returning to the Buckeyes from last year, but there are still a number of other safeties back with starting experience. Hickman was the team’s hybrid safety/linebacker Bullet last year. Josh Proctor won the free safety job but was lost for the season in week two. Bryson Shaw stepped in for Proctor and started the rest of the way before transferring mid-spring. Lathan Ransom started three games as OSU’s slot defender. He was replaced by Cameron Martinez, who is back, and then Marcus Williamson, who is not. Kourt Williams was also a Bullet who is now finding a new home in the Ohio State defense. There are younger players here as well who can make a move because of the clean-slate approach from new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.
Expectations Going In
Jim Knowles starts three safeties in his 4-2-5 defense with a boundary safety (short side), field safety (wide side), and nickel, which isn’t entirely different from what Ohio State did last year since they also started five defensive backs in every regular season game. The expectations going in this spring were that Knowles may have to fit some square pegs into round holes. With Josh Proctor limited and Lathan Ransom unavailable for spring, the Buckeyes were missing a prospective starter in Proctor and a guy who played the third-most snaps at safety last year in Ransom. This was going to be a learning process for everybody and there was no telling how much learning would get done this spring.
Reality Coming Out
The reality coming out is that Jim Knowles was very pleased with the approach his entire defense took. They were hungry to learn and they learned well. They kept up as best as they could and when things got a little heavy, he pulled back a bit. Things went so well, in fact, that Knowles has a pretty good idea of what his starting three will be and also has a nice head start on the entire two-deep. Ronnie Hickman was almost immediately installed at free safety, while Kourt Williams and Bryson Shaw were at strong safety. Shaw ended up hitting the transfer portal before spring was out. Josh Proctor worked his way back slowly and was able to start the spring game at strong safety. Tanner McCalister solidified the nickel spot, just as he had done the previous two years at Oklahoma State. Cameron Martinez backed him up well and provides experience at a position where they don’t have many options. Cornerback Lejond Cavazos was moved to nickel during the spring and he also hit the transfer portal before camp was over.
True freshman Kye Stokes could be considered a surprise. The Buckeyes signed a five-star safety prospect in the 2022 class, but it wasn’t Stokes. Meanwhile, Stokes took advantage of transfers and injuries and made plays when he was on the field. He was everywhere in the spring game, showing off his range, ball awareness, and a willingness for physicality. Jim Knowles even said after the spring game that he feels better about the depth at safety based in part because of what he saw from Stokes in the spring game and throughout camp. There is now a ton of film throughout spring for Stokes to learn off of and improve upon.
Where does Lathan Ransom fit in? Ransom has never really had a true home at Ohio State over his first two years. He seemingly played wherever he was needed most instead of where he fit best. Jim Knowles doesn’t really know what he has in Ransom due to the injury last year and will need time to figure it out. He is perhaps best slated for strong safety in this defense but Josh Proctor and Kourt Williams have gotten a very large head start at that position.
So Now What?
Jim Knowles has said that this is a safety-driven defense, so now they’ll go back and watch the film and see how they all did on their driver’s ed tests. Even though the spring was a positive and productive experience, work still need to be done. Kourt Williams needs to continue working on pass coverage. Ronnie Hickman must continue making free safety his home. Josh Proctor needs to get back to 100% and get himself situated at strong safety. Spring ball is just the second-part in a four-part offseason. Part three is the summer. Players are in the weight room, in the film room, and working on their own. The final part comes this August when fall camp starts.
For the sheer number of safeties the Buckeyes have, there is a concerning lack of proven experience. Ronnie Hickman led the team in tackles last year but he’s playing a different position this year. Josh Proctor has five career starts as he enters his fifth year at Ohio State. Kourt Williams was one of the top safeties this spring but has spent much of his time at OSU injured. It’s never a great sign when your most experienced player played his first four seasons at a different school.
Are We Sure?
Are we sure anything past the first team on the depth chart below is accurate?
“Well, I mean, I love Ronnie Hickman. 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. And then Kourt [Williams] I think is an excellent leader. 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’s a matter of me to put him in the right position. And I think our nickels are really solid with Tanner, who understands everything about me and the scheme. I mean, I think we’ve got some impressive nickel play. But yeah, without Josh [Proctor], I think we still need to have some other guys step up there at the Bandit and Adjuster position.” — Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles on the safety situation mid-way through spring ball.
Free Safety | Field Safety | “Adjuster” Safety
|14 Ronnie Hickman | Redshirt Junior | 6-1 205
|Ronnie Hickman led the Buckeyes with 98 tackles last year as a strong safety/Bullet. The move to free safety was a bit of a surprise, but defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has been nothing but pleased with Hickman to this point.
|37 Kye Stokes | Freshman | 6-2 185 OR
|Kye Stokes was one of the Buckeyes’ lowest-ranked recruits in their 2022 class but he arguably had the best spring of any of the freshmen. He could find himself in the two-deep this season.
|12 Lathan Ransom | Junior | 6-1 205
|Lathan Ransom missed the spring due to a leg injury in the Rose Bowl and his ultimate position isn’t really known. He’s here simply because putting six guys at strong safety seems excessive.
|24 Jantzen Dunn | Redshirt Freshman | 6-1 182 OR
|Jantzen Dunn also missed the spring after suffering a “long-term” leg injury last October. Dunn has a ton of promise and athleticism but needs to get back to full speed for fall camp. He also took practice reps last year as a nickel defender, so he could factor in at that position as well.
|23 Marcus Hooker | Fifth-Year Senior | 5-11 200
|Marcus Hooker saw snaps on defense just three times last year, spending most of his time on special teams. He missed the final four games of the year.
Strong Safety | Boundary Safety | “Bandit” Safety
|41 Josh Proctor | Fifth-Year Senior | 6-2 205
|Last year’s starting free safety Josh Proctor missed the bulk of the season with a broken leg and eased into things at strong safety this spring. He is the favorite to win the job.
|2 Kourt Williams | Redshirt Sophomore | 6-1 220
|Jim Knowles spoke very highly of Kourt Williams this spring and likes him in this role. There are some concerns about coverage ability, however.
|34 Andre Turrentine | Redshirt Freshman | 5-11 195
|Andre Turrentine played in four games last season, but saw action on defense just once. He was the No. 2 strong safety in the spring game and saw a ton of snaps because Kourt Williams was out. [Update: One day after this piece was published, Turrentine hit the transfer portal on April 25.]
|25 Jaylen Johnson | Redshirt Freshman | 6-1 210
|Jaylen Johnson came to Ohio State as a prospective hybrid Bullet defender, but now that that position no longer exists, he has to return to life as a full-time safety. He missed last season with an injury, so he won’t have to unlearn much.
|NA Sonny Styles | Freshman | 6-4 215
|Sonny Styles won’t arrive until this summer and even though many expect him to eventually play linebacker, Jim Knowles said they will start him out at safety. Given his size and the demands of the two positions, the assumption here is that he will play strong safety instead of free safety.
|15 Tanner McCalister | Graduate Transfer | 5-11 192
|Tanner McCalister transferred in from Oklahoma State and brought with him a coach-like knowledge of Jim Knowles’ defense. He’s been valuable in helping convey the defense to his teammates.
|10 Cameron Martinez | Redshirt Sophomore | 5-10 190
|Cameron Martinez started two games last year and was a valuable reserve throughout the season. He moved around a bit but has now solidified himself as a nickel. Last season he posted 23 tackles and took his lone interception back for a 61-yard pick six.
|24 Ryan Turner | Freshman | 6-0 180
|Ryan Turner is a cornerback signee who enrolled early. He took some reps this spring as a nickel, so he is listed here even though he is still very much a cornerback, as he showed in the spring game.