Could the Buckeyes be on the verge of having a true freshman as part of their last line of defense?
True freshman safety Malik Hartford has stood out throughout camp. He has put his best foot forward since he arrived on the Ohio State campus, and he continues to impress the Buckeye coaches who see him in practice every single day.
And now he finds himself in the mix to be the starting free safety for Ohio State.
Currently, the competition is a three-man race between sixth-year senior Josh Proctor, Syracuse senior transfer Ja’Had Carter, and Hartford. The odds are certainly against Hartford, but as a famous man once said, “Never tell me the odds!”
“I think that battle is still out there, so I want to make sure we solidify that,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said on Monday.
The Buckeyes finished up their final scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday. This is the time now when head coach Ryan Day wants to get the depth chart settled so that game preparation can begin.
While there may still be a notable quarterback competition going on at Ohio State, two-thirds of the safety situation for the Buckeyes has settled itself. Senior Lathan Ransom returns as the starter at strong safety, while sophomore Sonny Styles has secured the starting spot at nickel.
“Sonny is definitely a guy we’re going to have on the field as much as we can,” Knowles said. “He can match up to both 11 and 12 personnel. When people bring in two tight ends, he gives us a lot more versatility. Ja’Had’s doing well. Been banged up a little bit.
“In that high safety area, you’re looking at Lathan for sure. He’s had a great camp, great spring. And then you’re looking at Proctor and Malik and Ja’Had. Really, those three are fighting it out for that other position. And between the three of them, they’ll play there and also back up Lathan. But there’s very much a competition still going on for that other spot.”
Malik Hartford hasn’t been talked about a ton through the first half of fall practice, but coaches would mention him here and there. Like they were dropping hints of what is to come.
On Monday, Ryan Day didn’t bother hinting around it.
“Malik has done a really good job stepping up. You’re gonna see him play a lot this season,” he said. “He’s got a bright future ahead of him.”
Two weeks ago, safeties coach Perry Eliano met with reporters and discussed how his position group was doing. Throughout the first half of camp, the first team often featured Ja’Had Carter at free safety, Lathan Ransom at strong safety, and Sonny Styles as the nickel.
Beyond just a top three, however, Eliano said he was looking for a top six, “plus one.” The thought at that time was that Hartford was that plus one.
“He’s part of the matrix,” Eliano said at the time. “He’s having a really good camp to this point. He’s continually growing. Obviously, he came in January, so he’s ahead of the curve more than some of the freshmen that came in in the summer. But right now he’s having a good camp to this point.”
In the two weeks since, Hartford may have gone from a plus one to a flash mob. At a time in camp when most true freshmen are hitting the wall, he is pushing it over.
“He and Sonny are similar,” Eliano said. “He can process the game. He sees the game differently. He’s extremely smart. He’s got a high football IQ, and so it doesn’t surprise me because he did the same thing when he was in high school. So I’m looking for him to continue to grow.”
The Buckeyes haven’t had a true freshman safety start a game since Vonn Bell in the 2014 Orange Bowl against Clemson. (Bell finished that game with seven tackles and an interception.) Hartford has a chance to be the second in a decade, and to perhaps do it much earlier in the season.
In Jim Knowles’ defense, the free safety plays the wide side of the field, and is also known as the “Adjuster” because it requires him to make calls and “adjust” teammates. It requires a depth of knowledge of the scheme that isn’t typical of true freshman.
Hartford has yet to be the typical true freshman, however.
And that is why he continues to make this a battle.
“It’s day to day, but you feel Malik’s presence on the field,” Knowles said. “And I think when you’re talking about DBs, we all want to feel their presence on the field, including the fans, you want to feel it, and Malik is a guy who is going to show up around the ball. He’s very smart. Yeah, of course you worry about freshman mistakes. And back there a mistake is costly. So, it’s our job to judge his progress. He’s on that path. He’s on that path, and we’ve just got to keep fine tuning it.”