COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is the coach of the linebackers but he was clear a month ago when he said the defense would be “safety-driven.”
Knowles’ defense features four safeties on the field at the same time, so picking which players fill those spots has been a point of emphasis during spring camp.
Two starting safety spots should already be locked in: Ronnie Hickman and Tanner McCalister. Ronnie “Rocket” Hickman exploded onto the scene last year and finished 2021 as OSU’s leading tackler. He has a knack for making plays and being around the football and will start at the adjuster/free safety position.
“I’m excited for what I can do for the team. As long as I can contribute, I’m good. That’s my main goal,” Hickman said.
McCalister is new to Ohio State but a veteran on the field. He spent four years with Knowles at Oklahoma State and his talent, along with understanding of what Knowles wants, makes him well equipped to start at the nickel position. Cam Martinez is also coming into his own at that position and provides plenty of depth for the Buckeyes.
“It’s going to be a fun year playing alongside Ronnie, Proc[tor], Kourt, Cam Martinez, we’ve got some guys that can play ball,” McCalister said. “I’ve been having to be more of a vocal leader than I was at my previous school, which is no problem but guys are picking up the defense really fast.”
Josh Proctor will play in OSU’s spring game Saturday but will not be able to tackle as he continues to recover from a gruesome compound leg fracture suffered during week 2 last season. He was replaced at free safety by Bryson Shaw who transferred last week, which likely means Proctor will start at bandit/strong safety.
“Right now it’s just trying to get my feet back under me,” Proctor said last Friday. “I feel like me sitting down and being able to just watch my team from a different lens gave me a different sight of what’s going on out there and ways I can help and ways we can improve.”
The fourth safety spot remains up in the air but there are plenty of talented options, including Lathan Ransom who’s continuing to recover from a leg fracture suffered in the Rose Bowl, veteran Kourt Williams II who’s an excellent run stopper and true freshmen Kye Stokes and Sonny Styles.
Meanwhile, Ohio State returns two experienced and talented starting cornerbacks in Denzel Burke and Cam Brown. Burke burst onto the scene as a true freshman last season and played the most zone coverage snaps without allowing a TD in the Big Ten. On the other side, Brown returns for a fifth year and started when healthy, which has been an uphill battle for the St. Louis native.
“I’m supposed to be out there, I’m supposed to be a leader of the unit but I’m not out there to help them, tell them to do the right things,” Brown said. “I didn’t imagine myself being here more than three years but life is just different obstacles, different paths.”
Like Knowles, safeties coach Perry Eliano and cornerbacks coach Tim Walton are both new to the program and ready to lead the unit past a couple of uncharacteristic years and get back to being BIA — Best In America.