Caleb Downs Ohio State Buckeyes Safety

Spring Recap: Buckeyes Got Deeper At Safety

With spring football now in the rearview mirror for Ohio State, it’s time to look back at what happened with each position group and where things currently stand for the Buckeyes. We start our series with the safeties. (The nickel backs will be discussed with the cornerbacks.)

Quick Position Overview

The Buckeyes added the top safety in the nation in Caleb Downs from Alabama via the transfer portal over the winter. He pairs with strong safety Lathan Ransom to give the Buckeyes one of the best tandems in the nation — if not the best tandem in the nation. Sophomore Malik Hartford got good experience as a true freshman last season. The move of Sonny Styles to linebacker clears things up on the remaining depth chart. There are some young players that need to step up, but the same could be said for fifth-year senior Ja’Had Carter. Overall, this is a good room but it could stand to be deeper.

Expectations Going In

The expectations going in were that Caleb Downs would fit in seamlessly at free safety. There was still going to be a learning process as Downs immersed himself in defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ defense, but it wasn’t a concern. Lathan Ransom was expected to take it easy this spring and allow himself to fully heal from an injury late last season, which meant that some younger players were going to need to step in and occupy his reps. It wasn’t exactly known how that would take place and who would be handling those reps. It was expected that the recruiting over the past couple of years was going to be put to the test.

Reality Coming Out

The reality coming out of spring is that Caleb Downs did exactly what was expected. He was with the ones at free safety from the outset and stayed there throughout spring practice. With Lathan Ransom held out, the Buckeyes didn’t get to see their top two safeties work together much. They should be able to pick things up quickly in fall camp, however. True freshman Jaylen McClain impressed at free safety and strong safety Jayden Bonsu spent much of the spring with the ones. Bonsu (6-2 207) is a big-hitter, but got a great opportunity this spring to develop more of his game.

Jaylen McClain
Jaylen McClain

Any Surprises?

The surprises would be the young guys. Jaylen McClain and Jayden Bonsu getting the reps that they got was huge. And not just getting the reps but doing something with them. McClain has been talked about quite a bit in terms of his ability to chase the football, and as you saw in the spring game find the football. Bonsu got work with the ones throughout camp which is invaluable and will prepare him better for when he’s actually out there in a game for the first time. Bonsu did not play last season, so the experience that he got this spring will help get him ready for his first real snaps this year.

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Unanswered Question

Can Malik Hartford pick up where he left off last season? He got two starts last year as a true freshman, which is incredibly rare at Ohio State. His presumed spot has now been taken by Caleb Downs, yet it was Hartford who also helped recruit Downs to Ohio State out of the transfer portal. Had Downs not transferred to Ohio State, Hartford was likely going to be the starter at free safety this year. Unfortunately, he was held out this spring recovering from an injury. The expectations remain high for him. Maybe the good news in all of this is that he is not going to be thrust into a role that is perhaps too much for a true sophomore. He will be put into situations that he can succeed in and learn from and develop over time. But he will also be on the field early this season because of the need to play young depth so that the veterans will be good to go in November and December. And also so that they young Buckeyes who get experience in the fall will be better equipped to help in the playoffs.

So Now What?

Now Caleb Downs continues to learn and master the defense. He and Lathan Ransom haven’t really gotten to play together yet, so maybe that is also an unanswered question. Those two will need to continue to get their timing and communication down so that they can be the kind of veteran playmakers that are needed. Yes, Caleb Downs is only a sophomore, so calling him a veteran seems a bit odd, but he plays like a veteran. And if you play like a veteran, that means you are a veteran. So can those two guys get together and be at the top of their respective games immediately? Or is this something that will take three or four games for them to really get comfortable? And what kind of level will they be at in September compared to what level they will be at in November?

One Concern

The major concern would be injuries at both safety positions due to the lack of experienced depth. Lathan Ransom has dealt with injuries throughout his career. Ja’Had Carter has dealt with injuries throughout his Ohio State career. Malik Hartford was held out this spring recovering from an injury. The depth this spring was put to the test as evidenced by the fact that Jayden Bonsu was running with the ones and Jaylen McClain was running with the twos. The good news here is that Carter and Hartford have starting experience, but the production needs to get better when they are on the field. When you’re looking at the nature of the safety room, it is very top heavy with two excellent players and some talented but unproven players behind them. The problems aren’t many. And yet this is one that will be a concern until it isn’t.

Jayden Bonsu
Jayden Bonsu

Are We Sure?

Are we sure there is depth behind Lathan Ransom at strong safety? Ja’Had Carter has not played much at Ohio State. Jayden Bonsu has not played at all as a Buckeye. Perhaps the likeliest scenario if something were to happen with Ransom is that you might see Malik Hartford at strong safety instead. Right now it isn’t crazy to think that he is the number three safety on the roster. So whoever needs a rest, it could be Malik Hartford there to give it. And with the on-field rotating that the the safeties do in this defense, what might be free safety quickly becomes strong safety based on the motion of the receivers. Jim Knowles’ safeties need to be able to play all three spots: free safety, strong safety, and nickel. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Malik Harford could factor in at strong safety as well.


“His preparation is so high level, he challenges you as a coach to be an elite teacher because he’s gonna be on his game. It’s like coaching a professional player. He understands the concepts of the game so well. He’s put so much time into it. As a coach, you better be matching or equaling that. Going above and beyond that. Because if not, he’s going to be a step ahead of the coach.” — Ohio State safeties coach Matt Guerrieri on sophomore safety Caleb Downs.

Depth Chart

Free Safety / Field Safety / “Adjuster”

2 Caleb Downs, Soph
25 Malik Hartford, Soph (Inj.)
18 Jaylen McClain, Fr

Strong Safety / Boundary Safety / “Bandit”

8 Lathan Ransom, rSr
3 Ja’Had Carter, rSr
21 Jayden Bonsu, rFr

Reading List

‘Dominant’ Buckeyes Secondary Steals the Show at Spring Game

Ohio State Football Notebook: ‘You’ve got to make plays wherever you’re at’

Confident Caleb Downs Has ‘Been Awesome’ For Buckeyes

‘A workhorse’: Caleb Downs Impresses New Buckeyes Teammates

Ohio State Football Notebook: ‘You’re seeing some separation’

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