Ohio State safeties coach Perry Eliano met with reporters after the fifth practice of fall camp this past Tuesday and was flooded with questions about sophomore Sonny Styles.
Styles was seen with the first group of safeties when the Buckeyes opened camp last Thursday, and surprisingly he was lining up as the nickel back in OSU’s three-safety defense. His presence lining up over the opposing slot receiver wasn’t necessarily unexpected, but it definitely raised some eyebrows when he was there as a first-teamer.
Much has been written and said about Styles’ role since that day, but Eliano cautioned that perhaps too much was being made of where his safeties were lining up so far. There has been plenty of mixing and matching, but Eliano himself calls Styles a “unicorn,” so he’ll have to forgive people if they are talking about where he is lining up his 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore.
Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has said that his 4-2-5 scheme is a “safety-driven defense,” and Styles is a very unique wheel man. Last season as a true freshman, he was a reserve safety who eventually worked his way into the lineup as essentially a Sam linebacker against Georgia.
This spring, Styles was playing deep safety, but also seeing time closer to the line of scrimmage. So far in fall camp, he’s getting a look all over the place, and things started with the attention-grabbing appearance with the first-team at nickel.
“We’re just trying to find the best 11 players on the field,” Eliano said following Tuesday’s practice. “Trying to create an opportunity for guys that can elevate their skill set in certain positions. I’ve been pleased to this point. Obviously, it’s only practice five. But I’ve been pleased to this point and it’s still a work in progress. We’re just trying to find the best combination to get ready for game one.”
With a versatile player like Styles, there also becomes a fear of asking him to do too much. The defense doesn’t need him to be a jack of all trades and master of none. They need him to do exactly what is asked, and do it correctly. Spring ball was about seeing what he can handle. Fall camp will see them put their findings into action.
“We know exactly what we want to do with him,” Eliano said. “We’ve created a great plan for him. We’ve thought it through. And we’re excited about what it’s going to look like.”
It was about midway through last season that Eliano and the OSU defensive coaches saw a player who was ready for a larger tole. As a 17-year old college freshman, they tried to let him take his time, but Styles had other plans.
“You’ve got a 17-year-old coming in who had reclassified and obviously looks like a grown man when he steps in the door. But the fact of the matter is, he was still 17 years old and hadn’t played college ball,” Eliano said. “The thing with Sonny is just his maturity. His willingness to be coached. His selflessness. To me, that’s the biggest thing. He’s been that way since day one. He’s not an entitled guy, and I’m excited to see what he does this year.”
Sonny Styles spoke with reporters recently as well, with many of the questions being different forms of a respectful, “But how?”
“Okay, you’re playing nickel right now and you may have to defend the quickest receiver on the team. But how?”
As if people on the outside are trying to explain to him what he’s not supposed to be able to do. And as if the small sliver of what was seen in that first practice will define his role for the rest of the season.
The safest assumption here is no assumption. As Jim Knowles said last week, “Don’t assume anything with Sonny.”
“I’m kinda comfortable anywhere on the field,” Styles said. “They moved me around a little bit. I’m not set to any position, so they’re just moving me around, trying me out at different places.”
This isn’t new for Styles. Even when he was a 6-foot-4, 215-pound freshman, it was clear he was never going to be a typical safety. He can impact an offense from just about any spot on the field, including the many ways he can help the defense when he is lined up at nickel.
“I think it’s just another way to display versatility,” he said. “I’m able to be in the slot, play in coverage, be able to blitz off the edge, things like that. So I think it’s just a way for them to display my versatility. It feels good to know that they trust me and believe in me, seeing they will move me around different places.”
Fortunately for Styles and the Buckeyes, he has embraced his versatility. Some players may clamor for a place to call home, but Styles doesn’t mind the nomad lifestyle because he sees the entire field as his backyard.
“I think my favorite thing is making plays in multiple spots,” he said. “That’s my favorite thing. Going from the half, to being in the box, to playing in the middle of the field, to playing man to man. Being able to do it all.”
Styles sees opportunities to make plays wherever his coaches put him, “Just different kinds of plays based on where I am,” he remarked. But defense isn’t just about making plays — it’s also about keeping plays from being made. Without the latter, the former doesn’t really matter.
The Buckeyes had the No. 14 defense last year in terms of yards allowed. They would’ve been top 10, but they simply gave up too many big plays in their final two games of the year. If Ohio State is going to win those two games this year, the big plays have to be negated. With everybody now in the second year of Knowles’ system, the defense should be more comfortable with what they’re being asked to do.
That comfort level also includes Styles. It’s easy to look at him and see a guy who seems too big to cover a team’s quickest or fastest receiver. The thing is, however, the Ohio State coaches should have a pretty good idea of his coverage skills because he’s facing better receivers in practice than he’ll ever see in a game. Juniors Marvin Harrison, Jr. and Emeka Egbuka are future first-rounders, and they aren’t trying to ease anybody into a sense of calm and security.
“Yeah, I’m pretty comfortable,” Styles said. “I mean we’re going against the best receivers in the country. You get to go against Marv. You get to go against Emeka. You get to go against all those guys. So you get those reps against them, then you get in the game against other dudes, I think the game’s a little slower.”
Find That Man
Sonny Styles is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a Nike jersey, and Ohio State head coach Ryan Day understands how a defensive wildcard can bother an offense.
Before the snap, it’s common to see the center and quarterback pointing out the middle linebacker. Given what Styles can do, don’t be surprised when he’s also getting pointed at this season. Opposing offenses are going to have to account for Syles, not because of what they know, but because of what they don’t.
“Anytime you can do that, just like on offense, it brings versatility,” Day said. “Like for example, Xavier Johnson, is he a receiver or is he a running back? You can see down the stretch how that played out. Well, it’s the same thing on defense, the more things you can do, then the harder it is for the other side of the ball to identify what grouping’s in the game.”
Styles’ presence this year could be impacting an offense long before he even sees the field. In the week leading up to a game, he has the kind of versatility that could alter an offensive game plan.
“Well, it depends on where he is,” Day said. “When he’s playing the bandit, that’s a little bit of a different deal. When he moves over to play the adjuster, that’s different. If he moves over to the Sam, that’s different. So the good news is he can move around. We can put him in different spots. And like you said, that’s a little bit harder for the offense just because a lot of teams would say, ‘Well, you know, that guy is a certain position and you know exactly where he’s going to be,’ Sonny can move around and he can do a lot of different things.”
While Styles is moving from position to position during fall camp, the coaching staff is also looking for weak spots. They are poking his electric fence like velociraptors, searching for vulnerabilities. Every rep that he gets against Marvin Harrison, Jr., or Emeka Egbuka, or tight end Cade Stover, or as an edge rusher, or as a Sam linebacker, or as a deep safety providing the last line of defense, data is being collected. There will be pluses and minuses, and it will be up to the coaches to put Styles into more pluses than minuses.
It may be a difficult balance for the coaches to find, but that’s pretty much the job.
“The art of coaching right there, exactly,” Day said. “Letting him play fast, having enough scheme. The term I use is, you gotta get really good at your fastball, and then you’ve got to have a curveball and a changeup. But if you’re throwing all curveballs and change ups, your fastball is no good. They’re just going to sit on it, so you’ve got to get really good at your fastball. And you only need a couple pitches. If you have too many pitches then you don’t get good at your fastball. It’s the best way I can describe it, and I think that’s the art of coaching.”
Sonny Styles’ presence should allow Ohio State to do many different things defensively, including making the opposition think they’re going to do many different things. When he is on the field, he is going to allow the Buckeyes to better handle a no-huddle offense. He can move to different spots defensively as an offense shifts their formations and play calls looking for advantages.
Styles should be able to neutralize many of those advantages, and unsurprisingly, the coaches aren’t alone in being excited about the possibilities.
“He’s a dog,” said junior cornerback Denzel Burke. “He’s gonna be everywhere, and I can’t wait to see what we do with him.”