Long before this season started for the Buckeyes, the Wisconsin game was pointed to as a benchmark for the new-and-improved Ohio State defense. It was supposed to give everyone a real idea of just what the Buckeyes were capable of doing against the run this year. And on the fourth play of that Wisconsin game, rookie safety Sonny Styles flashed into the backfield to help force a tackle for no gain on a jet sweep.
Styles being in the game that early caught onlookers by surprise. This was going to be possibly the most physical game of the season for the Buckeyes, and there was Styles. A true freshman who is just getting his cleats wet, yet still finding a way to disrupt a play. Though calling him a true freshman ignores the fact that he graduated high school a year early, and didn’t enroll until the summer. Styles should still be in high school, but this past Saturday night he was in the Badger backfield.
He is both an early and late arrival, and yet he is also right on time.
“He’s been proving himself in practice every day,” secondary coach Tim Walton said when asked how Styles got on the field so early against the Badgers. “He’s a guy that’s taken a lot of reps. When you get a lot of reps, he’s showing his level of maturity. He’s very mature for a young age, and that starts from home.”
Styles is the son of former two-time All-Big Ten Buckeye linebacker Lorenzo Styles, who played from 1992-1994. Styles was also teammates for two years with Walton, who himself is a former Ohio State cornerback.
“He has a football pedigree, has a football background,” Walton said of his freshman safety. “I played with Lorenzo, so he’s used to being in tough situations. He’s been well-groomed there. [Safeties] Coach [Perry] Eliano has done a great job with preparing him, getting him ready, and he’s really serious about it.”
But being out there in the first series against a team like Wisconsin? A team that is known for physicality over everything else?
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying, man. It started at home,” Walton reiterated. “His dad did a great job with that, and then Coach Eliano has really hit him hard with studying and preparing, and just trying to be ready for it. Because they don’t know when that number is gonna be called, so you have to be ready for it. So that’s the approach we try to take in the room with all the guys. And hopefully he keeps progressing. And we look for great things from him in the future.”
Styles came to Ohio State as a five-star safety and the No. 1 prospect at his position in the nation. He is listed at 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds, so he doesn’t look like your typical safety. To this point, nothing he’s done has been typical.
Starting strong safety Josh Proctor was asked on Wednesday if he could have done what Styles did, skipping his senior year of high school and being ready to play against a team like Wisconsin in the fourth game of the year.
“I don’t think so,” he laughed. “I don’t think so. I don’t know, he’s different. I call him a ‘man child.’ That’s my nickname. He’s built different, looks different. But all in all, he’s very mature for his age. He came in mentally, like he was on it. There was nothing you’d have to show him, teach him, anything.”
Styles has been advanced in terms of processing the game, picking up the playbook, and understanding the nuances of a brand new defense.
And as Walton explained, he can take what is taught in the classroom and apply it on the field. He can also learn on the fly.
“He fixes his mistakes,” Walton said. “The things that he’ll make a mistake on early, he fixes them. They don’t show up a second time. So that just shows the level of being able to have recall of things that we do and to keep applying it.”
The Buckeyes are deep at safety this year, and injuries have forced them to play just about everyone they have. Styles already looks like a collegiate defender physically, but to be on the field as early as he was is significant. Ohio State was missing safety Lathan Ransom, which moved Styles up a spot on the depth chart, but defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and Tim Walton had no qualms about putting Styles in the game on the Badgers’ first drive.
He didn’t need to be out there. They wanted him to be out there.
That fact may surprise those on the outside, but it doesn’t surprise any of the Buckeyes themselves.
“Obviously, physically, he’s got the ability, he’s got the speed, he’s got the strength and stuff like that, but for a 17-year-old to come in and kind of mentally get a grasp on things, I think that’s huge,” starting free safety Ronnie Hickman said. “You know, not a lot of kids can do that, especially on the biggest stage in college football. So, I think he’s done a great job mentally as far as understanding the playbook and stuff like that.”
Sonny Styles didn’t record any statistics. He didn’t notch a single tackle, but his presence was significant. Him being on the field goes beyond the box score. It’s a hint of things to come.
And Hickman is one of the many Buckeyes who saw this coming long ago.
“When I saw him calling stuff out in the meeting room, and knowing — he might not have said it out loud, but I knew he knew the answer. So, once I once I saw him able to do that stuff, once he was able to evaluate formations and stuff like that, I knew he was going to be good, because physically, that’s nothing for him. It was all mental.”