Tanner McCalister’s roster listing on the Ohio State football team should probably read “Safety/Graduate Assistant.”
After earning his degree from Oklahoma State this past December, McCalister decided to enter the transfer portal and quickly found a home when his former Cowboys defensive coordinator Jim Knowles took the same position at Ohio State.
As a two-year starter for Oklahoma State at the nickel safety position, McCalister became a no-brainer addition to the Buckeyes in Knowles’ new defense.
Even being an experienced participant in this scheme, McCalister has still been intent on improving his knowledge and understanding of every role on the defense. Doing so has allowed him to help his new teammates all along the way.
“That’s kind of an obvious thing coming in,” McCalister said this spring. “The guys know I played with Coach Knowles, so when they have questions that they don’t want to ask coach, they definitely come to me and I answer the question. I’m here to help, obviously. I kind of just fell into that role. Not really being handed the role, I just kind of fell into it. So when they got a question, they asked Tanner. That’s kind of the position I’ve been put in, but I’m enjoying it.”
In Knowles’ three-safety defense, McCalister has had to be a leader previously as well. But back then, he was just one of many players experienced in Knowles’ system.
Now he’s like a Teaching Assistant in a college course.
“It’s definitely a different type of leadership,” McCalister said of his current role. “I like to see myself as a guy that may not be as vocal, but the guys are gonna see how I work and it’s gonna show up for itself. I’m also a vocal guy as well, but here I’ve been having to be more vocal. But that’s something that I’m comfortable doing.”
The confidence he built at Oklahoma State allowed him to take a leap into the transfer portal, but how close the Cowboys came to a Big XII Championship and a playoff berth also made McCalister realize how much he wanted to compete for a national title.
“Coming to a university like this, you know every year they’re going to put Ohio State preseason top four. They’re going to be top two, if not one,” McCalister said. “So when I was making my decision, obviously that was a big factor. I was like, ‘Man, this is probably gonna be a championship team.’ I wanted it to be a championship team. So coming from — honestly, we were probably going to be a championship team, at least in our conference, we fell short at Oklahoma State. But we were about to be a championship team there, so I got a little taste of that and once I decided I was going to transfer, I kind of wanted that feeling again. So that played a big part in my decision to come here.”
Now McCalister gets the best of both worlds. He gets to compete for a national title and he will be doing it in a defense that he knows very well.
But just because he knows his job doesn’t mean it’s easy. Playing nickel in college football puts some serious demands on a player. For Ohio State opponents, the nickel is generally the guy tasked with defending Jaxon Smith-Njigba, for instance, and nobody would call that an easy job.
“The nickel position obviously it’s a lot of covering. You’re basically a corner on the field,” McCalister said. “You’re a slot corner pretty much, but you also get to blitz. You get to play middle as well. So you’re really a versatile safety. I enjoy playing the nickel position because I get to do a lot of different things. Coach Knowles puts all of us in good positions to make plays at different times. So, I think from a nickel position, you’ve got to have good cover skills, you’ve got to be able to cover man-to-man, you’ve gotta be an instinctual player. You’ve got to know situations. And you’ve got to be a leader. You’ve got to talk over there on that field because basically you’re the field safety almost. So you’ve got to be able to communicate to the corner, communicate to the [free safety], to the Mike linebacker, so you’ve got to be a leader.”
McCalister will routinely be tasked with defending the opponent’s quickest receiver and won’t often have a lot of help when he’s doing it. He also has to be able to defend tight ends and can’t wilt against the run. With so many different jobs and none of them being easy, some could argue that playing nickel is the toughest job on any defense.
McCalister would agree.
“I mean, you know I’m biased, but I gotta say that, yeah, for sure,” he said. “But anybody that’s played football will tell you, covering a slot receiver with all that space is really hard. Corner is a hard position as well, obviously, but they have the sideline to help them. But covering in the slot with all that space, it’s a hard thing to do and not a lot of people have the ability to do that. So if you have the ability to do that, that’s really rare.”