This is the fifth in a series looking at how the Buckeyes will be replacing their departed starters in 2024. Up next is a look at the free safety position vacated by sixth-year senior Josh Proctor.
Josh Proctor spent more time at Ohio State than most coaches have, enrolling in 2018 as a major blue-chip prospect out of Owasso, Oklahoma where he was ranked the No. 7 safety and the No. 71 player in the nation. He was Jordan Fuller’s backup at free safety his first two seasons before earning a starting job in OSU’s three postseason games in 2020.
Proctor won the starting job at free safety in 2021 but was lost for the season with a broken leg in the second game of the year. He then won the strong safety job at the start of the 2022 season, but had ups and downs and lost the job. He surprised some people by returning for his sixth year, but it turned out to be the best year of his career.
Last year as the Buckeyes’ starting free safety, Proctor finally had the kind of season he knew he was capable of having. He finished the year with 47 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, one pick six, and eight passes broken up in 11 games. He was named Third-Team All-Big Ten for his efforts. Proctor started 19 games in his Ohio State career.
New safeties coach Matt Guerrieri will need to familiarize himself with Ohio State’s options at free safety, but he won’t have to familiarize himself with the Buckeye defensive system since he’s worked with OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles for many years prior to this one.
Ohio State went into the transfer portal and landed the best safety available, signing Alabama Freshman All-American Caleb Downs. Downs led Alabama with 107 tackles last year, which were 40 more tackles than the next-closest player. His 70 solo tackles also led the SEC. He was also a First-Team All-SEC selection, starting every game for the Crimson Tide as a true freshman.
Downs isn’t the only true sophomore safety on OSU’s roster with starting experience, as Malik Hartford started twice for the Buckeyes last year when Josh Proctor was out with injuries. Hartford finished with 10 tackles and two passes broken up.
Fifth-year senior Ja’Had Carter could show up here but may be better suited at strong safety with starter Lathan Ransom. Redshirt freshmen Cedrick Hawkins and Jayden Bonsu could also get involved with the depth chart, as could true freshmen Jaylen McClain and Leroy Roker.
Hartford could also end up at strong safety behind Ransom in preparation for being the starter in 2025 as a junior.
The Buckeyes will spend time in spring practice working offense vs. defense on two fields at the same time. As such, Caleb Downs and Malik Hartford — or Ja’Had Carter — will both get a significant amount of snaps. This will allow them both to get as much work as possible as they each continue to master Jim Knowles’ defense.
Knowles needs his safeties to be able to play multiple spots, so expect some malleability when it comes to spring practice. Especially as young players like Cedrick Hawkins, Jayden Bonsu, and Jaylen McClain find homes. Leroy Roker is the lone member of OSU’s secondary signing class who is not enrolling early, so he will not factor in to spring ball.
Well, you don’t go and get Caleb Downs from the transfer portal and then have him help out on special teams and dime situations. Downs is coming to Ohio State to fill a gap at free safety and quite possibly take this Buckeye defense to another level in 2024. He will be showing up on every preseason All-America list that matters and should be a leader of this Buckeye defense.
That being said, Malik Hartford became the first Ohio State safety to start a game as a true freshman since Vonn Bell in 2013. There will be a place on this Buckeye defense for Hartford, but barring anything unforeseen, the starting free safety for OSU is going to be Caleb Downs.