It was always going to be interesting to see how Ohio State handled the situation at safety this year.
The Buckeyes play three safeties in their base defense. The free safety (“Adjuster”) plays the wide side of the field, the strong safety (“Bandit”) plays the short side of the field (boundary), and the nickel plays in the slot to the wide side of the field.
Ohio State lost their starting free safety and nickel from last season’s team, meaning that the Buckeyes went into spring ball with two jobs wide open.
Senior Lathan Ransom is the lone returning starter. He played strong safety a year ago. Behind him this spring was sophomore Sonny Styles, who was the No. 1 safety in the 2022 class and checks in at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. Styles played multiple spots in the spring, which his size and athleticism make possible.
Fourth-year junior Cameron Martinez was the No. 1 nickel in the spring. He was backed up by senior Syracuse transfer Ja’Had Carter, who played all three safety positions in his time with the Orange. Sixth-year senior Josh Proctor and sophomore Kye Stokes were the top two at free safety in the spring.
When fall camp got underway on Thursday, however, a lot had changed.
The first group of safeties still featured Ransom at strong safety, but now Carter was the No. 1 free safety and Styles was the No. 1 nickel.
What was it about those two that got them on the field with the ones?
“Ja’Had being a transfer has just been a very coachable player,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “He’s one of those guys you can say something to, correct it, and then he corrects it immediately on the field. That’s rare. So his learning and processing of our system has been great. And then Sonny is that guy that we are continually trying to find ways to get him on the field, to let him be a factor in the game. So plan on him being out there a lot.”
With Carter, playing a deep safety was always a possibility. He had done it in the past, but it was the first time he had actually been seen doing it with the Buckeyes. He may have eventually moved there in the spring, but he missed the final two weeks with an injury. Regardless, Knowles and safeties coach Perry Eliano saw enough to have a plan for fall camp.
“Ja’Had is more of a high safety,” Knowles said. “Yeah, I mean, we experimented with him on the slot. And that’s part of learning the system. It’s good for safeties to play different positions early, but he’s more of a high safety. He understands the game. He sees the whole field. And he processes things quickly.”
While it wasn’t a surprise to see Styles in a nickel-type role, it was surprising to see him there in the team’s base package. Martinez didn’t appear to be full-go on Thursday, which begged the question of whether or not that’s why Styles was out there so much.
“No, Sonny’s out there because that’s where we want him,” Knowles said when asked that very question.
The assumption coming into camp was that there would be packages installed for Styles and that room would be found for him to get snaps. But opening as the team’s No. 1 nickel — which means he will be required to cover slot receivers at times — was a surprise.
“Don’t assume anything with Sonny,” Knowles said. “I mean, he’s extremely talented and he can do it all.”
Just because “he can do it all,” however, doesn’t mean the Buckeyes can ask too much of him. Or even ask the wrong things. Knowles is well aware of this, and he’s spent the last five months leading up to fall camp finding out exactly what Styles can handle.
“Yeah, I mean, my job is to make sure that he is the best he can be. So that is constantly focusing on not putting too much on him,” Knowles said. “So you watch the film and you watch the film, and you put a little bit in, you know. You just kind of go back and forth to see where his best learning curve is.”
Part of the allure of having Ransom, Carter, and Styles play together is that all three can handle different roles. All three have played every safety position on the field, and Styles even has experience as a Sam linebacker as well.
The versatility and flexibility is a plus, but Knowles wants each of his safeties to have a home, and to own it.
“Yeah, I love flexibility, but at the same time, you don’t want to cheat the player,” he said. “So there is a real balance to that. I love to have that flexibility, but the more reps that a guy gets at a certain position, performing those fundamentals, the better he’s going to be. So right now, I’m leaning more towards get ’em set, get ’em in place, let ’em get better at the fundamentals of that position.”