COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio State brings a combination of new and old at defensive back this season. The Buckeyes have a new cornerbacks coach and new safeties coach but return every starter from a year ago.
Perry Eliano joined Ohio State after two years at Cincinnati to coach the safeties while former Buckeye Tim Walton left the NFL ranks to come back to Columbus to coach corners. They get the benefit of taking over an experienced position group that had to learn on the fly last season.
OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has made it known this will be a safety-driven team playing three on the field at one time. Those three will likely be Ronnie Hickman (free safety), Josh Proctor (strong safety) and Tanner McCalister (Nickelback) but several Buckeyes will be rotated in.
Proctor returns after suffering a season-ending leg fracture in week two agianst Oregon.
“I’m ready to go. 100%. I’m full speed” Proctor said. “It was hard. It was hard for me because I just wanted to be out there with the guys and I felt like me being an older guy and us not having older guys on the team last year I feel like that would’ve helped a lot jus being out there with them.”
Meanwhile, Hickman led the defense in tackles last season and returns with high expectations.
“Being a safety is kind of like being a quarterback of the defense,” Hickman said. “I guess you could say there’s a lot on my plate but it’s nothing too much. It comes with the job.”
And then there’s McCalister who played for Knowles for four years at Oklahoma State before transferring to OSU. His knowledge of Knowles’ system and experience will make him an asset in pass coverage.
“We’ve been flying around and you can ask some of the offensive guys we’ve been giving them some trouble this fall camp so it’s been a nice back-and-forth battle which is exciting,” McCalister said.
Unlike at Oklahoma State, Knowles has more players to pick from who are good enough to be on the field. The Cowboys’ three safeties played more than 80% of the snaps on defense, but Knowles says that won’t be the case for the Buckeyes who have six safeties who are ‘game ready.’
“I think we have a little more depth here,” Knowles said. “I think it’s still going to swing more toward the top group but we do have more depth here than I’ve had in the past so they’ll be more guys that play.”
Those guys that will play include captain Kourt Williams, Cam Martinez and Lathan Ransom who filled in for Proctor last season before suffering a leg fracture in the Rose Bowl. Eliano said all three players, and the entire group, can play all three safety positions.
“When we say BIA, Best In America, that can’t be just talk, that can’t be just some slogan. That’s got to be real, so we live that everyday not only the players but myself and Coach Walton,” Eliano said.
Knowles has been especially impressed with Ransom who has twice been named the “Silver Bullet of the Day” recognizing players who give effort, show they’ve learned the new defense and are getting results after each practice session. Knowles said he thinks Ransom is the only player to win the award twice.
Tim Walton knows exactly who his starting cornerbacks will be: graduate Cameron Brown and sophomore Denzel Burke. The two Buckeyes have had two very different paths to this point.
Last season, Burke became first Ohio State true freshman to start the season opener on defense since Andy Katzenmoyer in 1996. He recorded a stretch of 293 snaps without allowing a touchdown, led the team with 13 passes defended and started all 13 games earning third-team all-Big Ten Conference honors.
“I feel like this team is just way different than last year and it’s going to be really special this year,” Burke said. “We went through a lot of shared pain last year, so we got a lot of revenge coming.”
Brown on the other hand overcame an Achilles injury in the second game of 2020 to play 11 games last season while starting five of those games.
But unlike safety, the Buckeyes are thin at corner. Their top backups are sophomores JK Johnson and Jordan Hancock. But a few of those players have dealt with minor injuries during fall camp, so Knowles brought sophomores Cameron Martinez and Jaylen Johnson over to cornerback to add depth to the room.
The only other cornerbacks on scholarship are true freshmen Jyaire Brown and Ryan Turner. Walton said the Buckeye corners will be back to full strength come September 3 against Notre Dame.
“We’ll be fine [if there are injuries] because we always dual teach [safeties and corners], so I think we’ll be fine,” Walton said. “We’ll be able to work through it but there’s really no concern about that.”