COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ever since taking over as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, Jim Knowles has said the defense is a safety-driven unit.
The Buckeyes use a 4-2-5 formation, meaning three safeties are on the field at the same time. Each safety has a different responsibility, and they’re all responsible for knowing the others’ jobs.
“They gotta learn everything because anything can happen in a game, so it’s our job as coaches to prepare our guys for the what if,” safeties coach Perry Eliano said.
Long plays exposed Ohio State’s defense at times, including the safeties who were part of a defense that allowed 87 combined points against Georgia and Michigan.
“In fairness of the players it was year one, so you just try and get them to understand the scheme,” Eliano said. “Now, going into year two, they know the why and the how and so that’s what’s fun for me as a coach is to be able to see them process even more, play even faster and see them grow.”
One player who checks all three of those boxes is sophomore Sonny Styles. The Pickerington Central graduate, who left high school a year early, proved early on that he deserved a spot on the field.
“I think midway through last season,” Eliano said about when they trusted Styles to play. “I think the uniqueness of Sonny is just his football IQ you know his ability to truly process and articulate, his ability to be coached and understand the pieces around him at such a young age.”
When asked which safety position Styles will play, Eliano simply, yet confidently, said he’ll be on the field.
“We know exactly what we want to do with him. We’ve created a great plan for him, we’ve thought it through and we’re excited about what it’s going to look like,” Eliano said.
That position will most likely be the “nickel” safety who can cover slot receivers and tight ends as well as set the edge in the run game. This player must also move around the zones with the other two safeties, and Styles’ size and athleticism make him more than capable of playing all three positions.
“It feels good to know they trust me and believe in me to move me around to different places,” the 18-year-old Styles said. “We talk about who the coaches trust is the guy who’s going to be on the field … that was the biggest thing for me last year. I think I earned the coaches’ trust.”
Another player Eliano and Knowles trust is Lathan Ransom. The Jim Thorpe semifinalist is back for another year to serve as OSU’s bandit safety. The position is focused on the boundary side of the defense and requires a player with a little bit of size who can crash the line of scrimmage and make plays in the backfield.
“The bandit role, it takes a lot of processing,” Ransom said. “You get a lot of opportunities to play in the runs fits, to play man [coverage] and really just show versatility man and I feel like I’m a very versatile player. That bandit is perfect for me.”
Ransom, who broke his leg two years ago in the Rose Bowl, didn’t have as much of an opportunity to get bigger in the weight room ahead of the 2022 season. This year, he’s taken full advantage of being healthy in the offseason and gained weight to endure a full season.
“He’s played a lot of football and now you can see a difference in his pace, you can see a difference in the speed that he’s playing at and it’s exciting,” Eliano said. “The cool thing is he’s taken a leadership role. He had a phenomenal summer.”
Cam Martinez, a high school quarterback turned safety, also has experience at nickel and will be rotated in with Styles and Ransom.
Also known as the free safety, the player in this position is in charge of moving his teammates around and getting them lined up properly based on the offensive formation. This requires a player with a high football IQ and experience in the system. That player is Ja’Had Carter. The Syracuse transfer played in a similar system for the Orange, whom he started for the last three years. At Big Ten media day, Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Carter could be a breakout player.
“Coming to a new program, I dove into the playbook, focused more on the technique, did the unseen hours and the unrequired work so you know, doing the little things to make sure when fall camp came around I was ready to go,” Carter said.
Another player who will compete at the position is sixth-year Buckeye Josh Proctor who saw limited playing time last season. Eliano said he has all the intangibles to play and just needs to be more consistent in his final year.