For the most part, all Sonny Styles has known at Ohio State is playing safety. But he’s also known that a position switch could be in his future.
As a sophomore last year, Styles started the first seven games for the Buckeyes at nickel, defending the slot and helping out against the run at times as a quasi-Sam linebacker. Then, when starting strong safety Lathan Ransom went down against Wisconsin, Styles moved to strong safety and started the final five games of the year in Ransom’s spot.
He finished fifth on the team with 53 tackles last year, posting more tackles for loss (4.5) and sacks (2.0) than any Buckeye linebacker. Styles’ versatility was always going to be an asset for the Ohio State defense, and it could be once again this season.
When Buckeye head coach Ryan Day looks at his defense this year, he sees a nickel position that was handled well by both Styles and Jordan Hancock last year. When Styles went to strong safety full time, Hancock proved that he could hold up on running downs just as well as passing downs.
The Buckeyes also have Lathan Ransom returning at strong safety, and they went into the portal and landed what may be the best free safety in the nation in sophomore Caleb Downs.
Basically, there isn’t a safety need on this Ohio State defense right now, but there is a need at linebacker where the Buckeyes must replace starters Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg. Senior Cody Simon is returning for a fifth season to step in at middle linebacker to replace Eichenberg, but there is no such experienced option to replace Chambers as the Will.
Or is there?
Like Father, Like Son?
At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Sonny Styles certainly looks the part of a linebacker. His father, Lorenzo Styles, was a starting linebacker at Ohio State 30 years ago, so it’s also in his blood.
On Wednesday, Ryan Day was asked if Styles might be moving to linebacker this season.
“Yeah, we’ve had conversations with Sonny and he has the flexibility to do a lot of different things, which is great, and he’s embracing some of those things,” Day said.
The conversations weren’t unexpected for Styles, who talked about the possibility last October.
“I think potentially I could play at linebacker, but I think right now I have some skills where I can be a really effective safety,” Styles said. “But I mean, obviously it’s a thought for how — I’m a big guy, so obviously I’ve thought about how I might move to linebacker eventually. I’m not sure what that’s gonna be right now. You know, right now I’m gonna play safety.”
It wouldn’t be a completely foreign concept to Styles, who was used near the line of scrimmage against run-heavy teams. He will certainly run better than most linebackers, but there would still be a learning process.
A year ago, OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles wanted to use spring practice in part to “experiment” with some different things that Styles could do. This spring, the experimentation will continue, but perhaps in a more focused attack.
“So as we get into spring, we’ll start to figure out exactly how that will all shake out,” Day said. “But that’s the one thing when you see Sonny, he has the flexibility to do multiple things not only because of his skill set in terms of his size, but also his mental makeup. He’s really willing to embrace some of those different roles, and that’s exciting because it gives us a lot of flexibility with the defense.”
New Is Nothing New For Sonny Styles
Styles has responded to new challenges well in his time at Ohio State. He graduated a year early out of high school and spent most of his freshman season as a 17-year old prospect focused on getting ready for his sophomore season. Then came a playoff game against Georgia where he was tasked with helping defend two of the best tight ends in college football.
He handled that test well and then faced a new one as a sophomore, lining up in the slot and defending receivers who would need to climb up three rungs on a step ladder just to look him in the eye.
The fact that the conversations about moving to linebacker have already happened — and that Ryan Day has admitted to having them — is a good sign that Styles will continue to be on board with any potential moves.
And based on what he had to say last October, playing in the box is where he feels most comfortable.
“That feels kind of more natural to me,” Styles said. “I think something I had to get comfortable with over the summer and then camp coming into season was more like the in-face, you know, in the slot. That’s not something I really played before in the slot, man to man. But I think I got more comfortable with that going against those guys every day in the summer and camp. I think [playing in the box] feels more natural, though.”