State Of The Position: Ohio State's Safeties Return Jordan Fuller, Brendon White With New Coaches, Altered Scheme

By Colin Hass-Hill on June 25, 2019 at 8:35 am
Jordan Fuller, Jeff Hafley, Brendon White

Over the summer, Eleven Warriors is taking a look at the state of every position on the Ohio State football team.

Ohio State spent what felt like an eternity trying to figure out which safety to pair with Jordan Fuller last fall.

But as the team gears up for this preseason, that question no longer needs asking. Brendon White will join Fuller at the back of the team's defense. 

Instead, there's uncertainty about how Ohio State will deploy its safeties in a defensive backfield now run by secondary coach Jeff Hafley and assistant secondary coach Matt Barnes. The personnel remains the same, but the coaching turnover brings a brand-new position – the Bullet – and an altered scheme.

The Personnel

Ohio State expects to have eight scholarship safeties on the team this season. 

  • Jordan Fuller (Sr.): After feeling like he "played just OK" in 2018, Fuller opted to return for his senior season at Ohio State, bolstering the defense's back end. He has nearly two full seasons of starting experience at safety, having laid claim to the job during the 2017 season. Fuller was a third-team All-Big Ten honoree as a sophomore and he made second-team all-conference as a junior. He tied Malik Harrison for the team lead with 81 tackles last season. He became a team captain in 2018, and he's expected to be one of the team's leaders once again as a senior. He has three career interceptions. As a senior, he's aiming to make more game-changing plays.
  • Jahsen Wint (RS-Jr.): Now entering his fourth season as a Buckeye, Wint hasn't yet been able to hang on to a major role on the defense. He had a chance to win the starting safety job opposite Fuller last year, but teams took advantage of him in the running game, and he also struggled against the pass. As a redshirt junior, he'll enter preseason camp at a new position: Bullet. Though Brendon White is expected to start at the hybrid position, Wint had a positive spring that he capped with a standout performance in the spring game. Provided he doesn't unseat White and become the starting Bullet, he'll become the backup at the position.
  • Brendon White (Jr.): Though he was relegated to the bench or late-game snaps in blowouts, White took advantage of an opportunity against Nebraska in the ninth game of the 2018 season to make his presence known. After entering the game due to a targeting call that led to Fuller's ejection, he racked up 13 tackles, including two tackles for loss, and proceeded to start the rest of the season. White was named the Rose Bowl's co-player of the game, along with Dwayne Haskins. He ended the year with 46 tackles, two pass breakups and one interceptions. As a junior, he's expected to become the starting Bullet, filling the newly created hybrid linebacker/safety position. 
  • Isaiah Pryor (Jr.): Last season, Pryor served as the starting safety opposite Fuller for eight games. But once White emerged as an option, he lost his job and slid back on the depth chart. Pryor had 31 tackles and five pass breakups as a sophomore, though he struggled with missed tackles and blown coverage assignments. With both Fuller and White back for the 2019 season, he's expected to back up Fuller. Pryor got a significant amount of first-team reps this spring with Fuller out for the duration due to injury.
  • Josh Proctor (So.): Throughout this spring, few players had coaches extolling their improvements more than Proctor. Though Fuller returns as the starter and Pryor was ahead of him on the spring practice depth chart, he'll be difficult to keep off the field, provided he continues performing well in the preseason. Proctor barely played at safety as a freshman, taking just three defensive snaps and spending the rest of the season contributing on special teams. The offseason strides put him in position for a sizably increased role, but Fuller's presence could limit his immediate opportunities.
  • Marcus Hooker (RS-Fr.): As a freshman, Hooker played on special teams in three games, never taking a snap on defense. He was suspended for the first game of his career due to a DUI prior to arriving on campus, and he also dealt with an undisclosed injury that kept him out at the beginning of the season. Hooker will likely serve as depth at safety and contribute mainly on special teams as a redshirt freshman this fall. He's the younger brother of former Ohio State safety Malik Hooker.
  • Bryson Shaw (Fr.): Before becoming a Buckeye, Shaw made two other commitments: one to play lacrosse at Maryland and another to play football at Wisconsin. He opted for Ohio State, though, where he'll begin his career as a safety in Jeff Hafley's defensive backfield. The former highly rated lacrosse recruit from Maryland will likely become a depth option at safety as a freshman, with most of his time on Saturdays spent on special teams. He was the No. 576 overall prospect and 45th-ranked safety in his class.
  • Ronnie Hickman (Fr.): During his senior year of high school, Hickman suffered a torn ACL that will prevent him from factoring into Ohio State's immediate plans. There isn't any reason to push him into action before he's ready. Eventually, he could become a Bullet in the secondary. Hickman, a New Jersey native, enrolled early this spring and spent his time rehabbing from the knee injury. He was the No. 115 overall prospect and 10th-ranked safety in his class.

Ohio State does not currently have any safeties committed in future classes. Lejond Cavazos is listed as a safety by recruiting services, but he's expected to play cornerback in college.

Outlook in 2019

Fuller opting to remain in Columbus for his senior season gave the Buckeyes' secondary a much-needed boost. Had he left, they would've been in the same situation as last year: figuring out who to start at safety, only this time they'd be looking for someone opposite White.

With Fuller back, though, Ohio State not only has a leader for its defensive backfield, but one for the team as a whole. He's one of the most respected players on either side of the ball, and it'll be beneficial for Hafley and Barnes to be able to rely on him.

In December, Fuller said he didn't make as many game-changing plays as he hoped. How impactful can he be as a senior? He certainly hopes to take a significant step forward, and Ohio State's defense would get a major boost if he produces more turnovers.

White returns, too, but he's faced with a new obstacle: learning a completely new position. Mattison coaches the Bullets and the strongside linebackers, so White has had plenty of one-on-one opportunities to learn. It's imperative for the Buckeyes that he doesn't have any issues getting up to game speed by Week 1 at the hybrid position.

Given the new coaching staff and new position, as much uncertainty remains at safety as any other position on the team, though there's minimal debate about which two players will start.

Strengths of the position

Fuller's return might have been more beneficial to Ohio State than any other player's decision to take advantage of their remaining eligibility and stay in school.

Having him at safety, even though he missed the entirety of spring practice due to an injury, will give Hafley and Barnes an experienced safety. Fuller has a high floor, and he doesn't believe he has come close to reaching his ceiling. If his new coaches can procure the remaining potential out of him, the Buckeyes could have an impactful safety in the back of their defense.

The return of White for his junior season means Ohio State hasn't been conducting a full-scale search for a starting safety, as it did last offseason. He was the Rose Bowl's co-player of the game, and he plugged the largest hole in the defense last season when Alex Grinch and Greg Schiano turned to him. He's an asset to Hafley, Mattison and Barnes, all of whom are focused on figuring out how best to deploy him.

Proctor and Hickman give the Buckeyes a duo of underclassmen to look forward to. Proctor has made notable strides as he enters his second year, and Hickman was a recruit who garnered interest from schools throughout the country. Keep an eye on them as they work to carve out niches in the secondary.

Weaknesses of the position

As much as Ohio State should feel confident in Fuller, he has only intercepted three passes in his nearly two seasons as a starter. The Buckeyes need someone to turn to to increase its takeaways this fall, and it's not clear who will take the lead.

Almost all the other weaknesses at safety are questions about how the new hybrid position will impact the rest of the defense.

How much will Ohio State utilize the Bullet? Will the Bullet look more like a safety or a linebacker? How will the defense look when it has a Bullet and a nickelback on the field at the same time? Will the new position drastically affect the defense, or will it have a relatively minor impact? Will anyone other than White take significant snaps as the Bullet? 

None of those questions are fully answered, so it's fair to take a wait-and-see approach to the Bullet. One thing's certain, though: Hafley, Barnes, Mattison have to be on same page and communicate well. If not, the situation could get rockier than they hope.

Long-Term Outlook

With a new position and almost an entirely new defensive coaching staff, it's difficult to project the future of safety with any certainty. But here's our best guess.

2019 Projected Depth Chart
  • Deep Safety: Jordan Fuller, Josh Proctor
  • Safety/Bullet: Brendon White, Jahsen Wint
2020 Projected Depth Chart
  • Deep Safety: Josh Proctor, Isaiah Pryor
  • Safety/Bullet: Brendon White, Jahsen Wint
2021 Projected Depth Chart
  • Deep Safety: Josh Proctor, Marcus Hooker
  • Safety/Bullet: Ronnie Hickman, Kourt Williams

Fuller and White will both start in 2019, and unless something unexpected happens, White will be back as a senior starter in 2020. With Damon Arnette and Jeffrey Okudah both likely gone after this fall, he could be the most veteran player in the defensive backfield by that point – though Shaun Wade could be in contention for that title.

Two returners have the most on the line in the next two seasons: Wint and Pryor.

Both have two more years of eligibility, and there's a decent likelihood that neither gets a chance to start again at Ohio State. Pryor's in a better spot, for he's currently ahead of Proctor on the depth chart. But he need to have a productive 2019 season backing up Fuller to hang on to that spot. Wint's path is even more difficult. He's the backup to White, who also has two years of eligibility remaining. In order to start, he'll have to either beat White out for the job, win the job if White leaves for the NFL after the 2019 season or compete to play at the deep safety spot when Fuller leaves after this fall.

Proctor is primed to contribute soon, and it makes sense for him to become a starter as a junior in 2020. He'll need to continue to improve and earn the trust of Hafley to make that happen, though.

The future of the Bullet will largely rely on who Mattison and Hafley recruit to fill that position. Hickman could slide into that spot once White and Wint leave. But beyond him? Uncertainty. Kourt Williams is currently uncommitted, but he's viewed as an Ohio State lean, and the Buckeyes are recruiting him as a Bullet.

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