Under Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, the Buckeyes generally employ three safeties in their defensive alignment. There is a free safety that plays the wide side of field, known as the “Adjuster.” The strong safety is on the short — or boundary — side of the field, and he is known as the “Bandit.” The third safety is the “Nickel,” who defends the slot receiver or tight end.
The alignment is designed to combat today’s passing offenses, but it also has to be able to defend the run just as well.
Last year, the Buckeyes eventually relied on three main safeties — Ronnie Hickman as the Adjuster, Lathan Ransom as the Bandit, and Tanner McCalister at Nickel.
This year, only Ransom returns, and yet despite the losses of Hickman and McCalister, the Buckeyes may actually have more options than they did a year ago.
For instance, as a true freshman last year, Sonny Styles’ role grew into something sizable enough for him to be integral in OSU’s plan against Georgia in the College Football Playoffs. Syracuse transfer Ja’Had Carter has years of starting experience, and he will likely compete with Cameron Martinez at nickel. Martinez was McCalister’s backup last year, but has also started a handful of games in his career. He may have had the best spring of any of the safeties.
Josh Proctor returns for his sixth year. He has earned starting jobs each of the past two seasons. Sophomore Kye Stokes showed flashes as a true freshman, which makes you wonder what he could do this year. Kourt Williams returns as well. He missed last season but earned a start in the Rose Bowl a couple of seasons ago and played well. He’s a former captain who has remained on the cusp due to injuries.
And, of course, Lathan Ransom returns to man the Bandit position. Everybody is a year older, and everybody but Carter has a full year of experience in Jim Knowles’ defense. The expectations have been heightened for this group — and for this entire defense.
Even replacing two safety starters, Knowles likes having so many options.
“More is better,” Knowles said. “Being able to intermingle the players based on the matchups is a good thing.”
Safeties coach Perry Eliano agrees.
“The cool thing is we’ve got enough pieces to move them around,” he said. “And the thing is, they’re getting a great grasp of the defense in the scheme. So I’ll be able to plug and play guys and put guys in certain situations depending on who we’re playing and depending on where we’re trying to attack. So that’s the cool thing about going into year two is, it’s not the first time they’ve heard something. It’s not the first time they practiced something. So now we have to get into some things down the road that I think definitely will be advantageous for us.”
The versatility of the Ohio State safety group will give Eliano and Knowles plenty of options. For instance, there could be times when Cam Martinez and Sonny Styles alternate at the nickel position. Martinez — listed at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds — would give the Buckeyes one look, while the 6-foot-4 and 228 pounds Styles would give them a decidedly different one.
Ja’Had Carter also has experience playing all three of these positions at Syracuse in the past, so the Buckeyes will have defenders who play one spot on one play, then can move to a different spot on the next play. It could keep an offense guessing, while also allowing the OSU defense to better handle no-huddle offenses and the inability to substitute.
However, when there are opportunities to substitute, Knowles has come around on the idea. Previously at Oklahoma State, his preference was to rely on the same three safeties for the majority of his calls. With the Buckeyes, however, the options become more plentiful.
“I think you get to The Ohio State, you realize there are a lot of guys with a lot of skills that you should find roles for,” he said.
The benefit of playing more players is something that he warmed up to only recently.
“I don’t know that I really noticed it or thought about it until this this spring,” he said. “I think because that first year, really your hair’s on fire. I don’t have any hair left but you know what I mean. Because you are attempting to input and produce at the same time. So I think after year one, you have the luxury to kind of calm down in the spring, look at the good things.”
While keeping an offense guessing is nice, it can’t come at the cost of a defense also guessing. That is why even though the coaches are comfortable playing more players, it will only happen if those players can be trusted as much as the veterans.
“There’s some guys in the room that have earned that right to say ‘no matter what, they’re out there,’” Eliano explained. “And the thing for them is — the thing I love most about them — they know they’ve got to come to work every day. This summer is extremely important. The work you’re putting in on the field, off the field, and then going into August. The thing about here is competition, and that’s something that we preached, and we drove home a lot in everything we do. From nutrition, to the weight room, to academics, everything matters. There is nothing less than the other.”
The coaches also have a better idea of what each of the players can do best, which allows them to game plan with those skill sets in mind. They see it as an advantage that they didn’t necessarily have last year with so much learning going on.
“It’s knowing the talent, knowing your players, knowing what they can do, what they do well, finding ways to do it,” Knowles said.
The knowledge then gives the Buckeyes the blueprints for finding the kind of matchups that favor them throughout a game.
“Absolutely. That has a lot to do it,” Eliano said. “And at the end of the day, it’s about matchups. And we’re trying to find the very best matchup to create the very best opportunities for us to have success.”