After the first day of spring practice back in early March, Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said that during those 15 practices, they were going to experiment with sophomore safety Sonny Styles.
They wanted to know what he was capable of and they wanted to figure out ways to put him in positions to make the Buckeye defense better. Knowles and safeties coach Perry Eliano had Styles repping all over the place, but there was a definite method to the madness.
They wanted to see if he would sink or swim, and yet in the midst of every test, Styles would seemingly end up asking if they wanted the backstroke, the butterfly, or the breaststroke.
The Ohio State assistant coaches met with reporters on Tuesday, and the first question Knowles was asked was how the experimenting went in the spring.
“You know, I’ve learned that Sonny can handle a lot,” he said. “He’s more adept at playing in a high safety position than you would think for a bigger guy. Most of the time last year, we had him at the line of scrimmage or close to the line of scrimmage. So we’ve come up with a dual plan for him where he’ll be able to compete at a high safety position, because I think we’re going to need him there, but he’ll have a package where certainly he’s down close to the line of scrimmage and able to blitz and do some things in the run game and pass game for us.”
The coaches were gathering data all spring long. Onlookers at any given practice could see the 6-foot-4 Styles on the edge of the line of scrimmage on one play, then back as a deep safety the next play. The play after that, he could be lined up as a nickel covering a slot receiver.
They put Styles through his paces because they needed to know what he could handle and where he needed to get better. It was a process that took all 15 practices, and while the process is not yet over, Knowles has liked what he’s seen.
“I think it takes all spring to really put him in those positions, where he’s going to be challenged cover wise,” Knowles said. “And in some matchups he did well, so I think he’s a really versatile player. He’s shown me a lot since he’s been here, but he’s ready to play.”
The process for Sonny Styles is no different than any other player, though the expectations may be different. Styles was a former 5-star prospect who reclassified and graduated a year early. He is also the son of former Buckeye linebacker Lorenzo Styles. Expectations have been thrust upon him for years, and he’s always risen to exceed them.
“We’re going to find ways to get everybody on the field that’s going to help us win championships, and Sonny’s part of that matrix,” Eliano said on Tuesday. “I think everybody’s got to understand, he’s 18 years old. Obviously, he reclassified, but Sonny has worked. I mean he’s played on the biggest of stages in his young career and did well, so we’re gonna find ways to get guys on the field, guys that are playmakers, guys that have earned it each and every day, whether it be the spring, summer, and going into the fall.”
Knowles’ defensive system employs three safeties — the free safety (Adjuster) that plays the wide side of the field, the strong safety (Bandit) that plays the short side of the field, and the nickel (Nickel) that covers the slot receiver or tight end on the wide side of the field.
Styles spent much of his spring as the No. 2 strong safety behind senior starter Lathan Ransom, but he also saw time several other places. One of those spots was up closer to the line of scrimmage as the “nickel,” which allowed him to be equal parts strong safety, nickel, and Sam linebacker.
Knowles can see Styles playing all three safety positions over the course of the season, though some of it will have Styles’ own bent to it.
“Yeah, I think he will. I think he will, because we’ll need it. And he’s repped at all three,” Knowles said. “We like him in that nickel position. But of course, when he’s in there, it’s almost like a strong safety, you know what I mean? So you adapt what he does best to the defense and what I call when he’s in there, if he’s in at a nickel.
“But we tried to put him in some challenging positions too just to see how he would hold up with a lot of things that a nickel has to do, and he did well. So I think really the sky’s the limit with Sonny and we’ll keep working. And I’ll keep working over the summer to really define the things that he does best.”