The Buckeyes didn’t have to go far to find safety Malik Hartford, signing him out of Lakota West High School near Cincinnati. As a senior, he was named Division I Co-Defensive Player of the Year, posting 43 tackles, two interceptions, four tackles for loss, and five pass breakups.
Hartford was ranked the No. 11 safety in the 2023 recruiting class and the No. 151 player overall. He signed with Ohio State over offers from the likes of Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Penn State.
What To Like
The Buckeyes got a first-hand look at Malik Hartford this winter and spring because he enrolled early. He got a head start on his Ohio State future, which is always helpful. It wasn’t a surprise that he enrolled early when you watch him perform and see how much preparation must mean to him.
One of the first things that stands out is how quickly he diagnoses a play. Following spring football, Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said his defense will be at its best when the players are able to diagnose where the ball is going. That’s what made middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg so effective last year. He didn’t go where the football was, he went where it was going to be.
Watching Hartford, he plays with the same kind of prescience. Watch him read and trigger, and then meet the ball where it’s going.
Malik Hartford saw time at both free and strong safety this spring. He has the range to play wide and deep, the physicality and willingness to play closer to the line of scrimmage, and the size (6-2 183) to be fine at either spot. He will continue to get stronger, which will make his willingness even more effective.
The Buckeyes want versatility in the secondary, and that’s what they’ve gotten in Hartford. He can play either of the two deep safety spots. He can attack the line of scrimmage, or he can be the last line of defense. And wherever he ends up, expect him to be heard.
The Buckeyes are deep at safety this year, so a freshman making an impact on defense is unlikely. But they could be losing three possible starters after this season, so it won’t be long before Malik Hartford will be counted on to push for a starting job.
Hartford is one of three freshman safeties on the team this year, but the only one who enrolled early. As such, he has a head start on his classmates. Hartford spent time mostly with the threes in spring practice, and that is probably where he will be this season. Finding snaps on defense this year will be difficult, but don’t expect the preparation to slow down.
Perhaps the biggest impact from Hartford this year could come on special teams, where he was an elite player in high school.
The Bottom Line
Malik Hartford enrolled early because when his time comes, he wants to be ready. This season will be a learning process, but don’t be surprised when that learning happens quickly. Hartford has every trait a coach wants in a safety, including the ability to find the ball in the air. If you’re going to play centerfield, after all, you need to be able to chase down fly balls.
Wherever Hartford ends up in this defense, he will be able to match up with receivers or patrol his patch of the field in the passing game. His ability to trigger doesn’t just help him near the line of scrimmage. That ability to diagnose and react is used everywhere, and the more knowledge he gains about this defense, the more effective his ability to defend the pass will become.
Previous Closer Look editions
Quarterback Lincoln Kienholz | Wide Receiver Carnell Tate | Wide Receiver Brandon Inniss | Wide Receiver Noah Rogers | Tight End Jelani Thurman | Offensive Lineman Vic Cutler | Offensive Lineman Luke Montgomery | Offensive Lineman Joshua Padilla | Defensive End Joshua Mickens | Defensive Tackle Kayden McDonald | Defensive Tackle Jason Moore | Cornerback Jermaine Mathews, Jr. | Cornerback Calvin Simpson-Hunt | Cornerback Davison Igbinosun | Safety Ja’Had Carter | Safety Jayden Bonsu