If it wasn’t for inconsistency, the Buckeye safeties wouldn’t have had any consistency at all last season. There were more ups and downs than a golf course that’s just bunkers and greens.
While there is more that goes into a pass defense than just the safeties, there is a level of importance with the safeties in defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ system that requires them to play well.
Knowles calls it “a safety-driven defense” for a reason, after all. And last year when the defense was doing well, that usually meant the safeties were as well.
The opposite of that was also true.
The Buckeyes were 10th in pass efficiency defense in the Big Ten last season, but the struggles fluctuated. In their four September games last year (Notre Dame, Arkansas State, Toledo, Wisconsin), the Buckeyes ranked sixth in pass efficiency defense. In their four October games (Rutgers, at Michigan State, Iowa, at Penn State), they ranked third. And in their four November games (at Northwestern, Indiana, at Maryland, Michigan), they finished 12th.
And that was before a season-worst performance against Georgia in the College Football Playoffs.
If the Buckeyes are going to exceed their high-water mark last year, the safeties are going to have to be better than they were a season ago. And in order to make that happen, they must replace starting free safety Ronnie Hickman and starting nickel Tanner McCalister.
The good news is that they have starting experience returning, and they’re returning to a defense that they’re familiar with.
“We definitely grew. Grew tremendously,” safeties coach Perry Eliano said of his guys this spring. “You know, it’s cool to kind of come into the system for the second year and them have an even better grasp, understand different nuances within the scheme, just gel, play even faster, and understand that there’s still work to be done. But just pleased to this point.”
The Buckeyes also went into the portal and added veteran starting safety Ja’Had Carter out of Syracuse. He provides some versatility to a group that can use it.
Starting strong safety Lathan Ransom returns, as does sixth-year safety Josh Proctor. Proctor has started the season openers the previous two years for the Buckeyes, and spent the spring as the starting free safety.
Fourth-year junior Cameron Martinez replaced McCalister in the spring and had one of the best springs of anybody on the defense. Carter was also at nickel before being injured and missing a portion of spring. Add in sophomores Sonny Styles and Kye Stokes, and Eliano has been pleased with the growth of his room.
“Mindset, maturity, comfort level, understanding what failure really feels like,” he said. “Just holistically, it’s exciting to see the young men in the meeting room, on the field, with that fire in their eye understanding that we can do whatever we want to do in this game, we’ve just got to put in the work and make sure that we’re dotting the I’s and crossing our T’s and being realistic with ourselves as far as where we must get better. And I’ve seen that. And that’s what’s exciting to me when I’m in front of the guys and going to work with them.”
The work put in this spring was just a precursor to the work going on now. And the 15 spring practices were just the preamble to what’s going to take place in fall camp. Eliano wants to see his guys reach a level of comfort that allows him to get a true evaluation of where they can help this defense. The more comfortable they are, the faster they play. And a faster secondary is a playmaking secondary.
Regardless of the talent or experience on hand, however, the expectations never change.
“The game is played between the ears. It’s about us,” he said. “We are Ohio State, and so it’s about us putting in the work day in and day out. The preparation, understanding where we fell short, and making sure that we make those proper corrections as a staff, as coaches, as players, and continue to grind and move forward. We understand the expectations. To beat the team up north, win the Big Ten and national championships, so those things won’t change. So the challenge is really within us in this building, and it starts and ends there.”