When Josh Proctor committed to play for Ohio State, the Buckeyes will still using two starting safeties on defense. Once on campus, he admitted he didn’t catch on as quickly as he imagined. The true freshman spent 2018 learning behind Jordan Fuller, the veteran safety paired with him in the big brother-little brother program.
The next year, out went Greg Schiano, Alex Grinch and their two-safety defense, and in came Jeff Hafley, Matt Barnes and their single-high safety scheme. Proctor spent the 2019 season working behind Fuller as a deep safety while also getting sent by Hafley to practice with the cornerbacks at times, further diversifying his skillset.
Once the season ended, Hafley headed out the door to become Boston College’s head coach and Kerry Coombs returned to Columbus to preside over the defensive backfield alongside Barnes.
More change for Proctor? Sort of.
Coombs has kept large parts of the defense intact. The basics haven’t changed much. But Proctor’s role this season, in which he’s thrived in 81 defensive snaps through three games, wasn’t where many people saw him ending up. Instead of becoming the deep safety at the back end of the defense, he’s been a hybrid safety/nickelback asked to play all over the field.
“I can describe it kind of like a Swiss Army Knife,” Proctor said on Tuesday. “Just kind of anywhere you need me.”
And that’s exactly where the Buckeyes need him: Anywhere and everywhere.
“It wasn't really a plan coming in as coach Coombs came in,” Proctor said. “He kind of talked to me about multiple spots. But he just basically sat me down and told me that he wanted me to learn every spot in the back end, basically. He said versatility is our biggest threat. I think I took that to heart and I felt like that was my biggest chance of getting on the field.”
So far, it’s worked.
“I think I've played pretty good, as well as the secondary,” Proctor said. “There's some places we can improve, as far as tackling and some things like that. All in all, I think we're in the right direction and we're where we want to be right now. We've just got to keep working.”
Proctor (81) has played exactly half as many snaps as Marcus Hooker (162), the free safety who almost never leaves the field. Yet based on how Proctor played in the opening three games, it wouldn’t be a surprise for Coombs and Barnes to ensure he gets onto the field more often going forward. He’s a dynamic, hard-hitting, contact-seeking defensive back who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs a tad more than 200 pounds yet never feels physically overwhelmed. Similarly to Baron Browning, he plays at his best when he’s screeching downhill.
Ohio State’s coaches have utilized him as a slot cornerback, had him defend wide receivers and called for him to guard Penn State All-American candidate tight end Pat Freiermuth one-on-one. He enjoys those types of moments since he likes “seeing everything fast” happen right in front of him. At times, they’ve put Proctor close to the line of scrimmage; at others, they've had him complement Hooker as a second deep safety.
Again: He’s done just about everything.
“He’s key, period, but you’re not wrong in that he has played in a variety of spots on the defense because he has versatility,” Coombs said two weeks ago.
That ability to play all over the field comes in handy this fall with a secondary that lacks depth and COVID-19 remaining an ongoing threat.
If necessary, Proctor could start at deep safety. If called upon to play slot cornerback in more of a full-time role, he’d have the skillset to do that. The more he learns and the more areas he can play, the more dangerous he can become in a defensive backfield that is one of the main concerns as the Buckeyes look to chase a national championship in a season that could require them facing a pair of deadly aerial attacks in the College Football Playoff.
“If you can play man-to-man coverage, zone coverage, blitz and then play the run, if you can do those things, that's pretty good,” head coach Ryan Day said. “Now, at what level? That's the question. If you can do all of them pretty good, that's OK. If you can do all of them really good, if you can do everything great, then you're like Isaiah Simmons at Clemson. It allows flexibility, for sure, schematically for the defensive coordinator to do a lot of different things.”
It’s unfair to use Simmons in the same sentence as Proctor right now. Simmons was a Butkus Award-winning linebacker who got taken No. 8 overall in this spring’s NFL draft due to his ridiculous athleticism and ability to play all over the field.
But that’s the type of impact Ohio State has seen up close from guys who don’t positionally fit perfectly into a box. And because of Proctor’s time spent practicing as a safety in both two-safety and single-safety defenses and at cornerback, he might be in that mold. Somebody without a specific position who can impact games from a variety of spots.
If that’s the case, it works for him.
“I just want to be out there with my team and make plays and hopefully get to where we want to be at the end of the season,” Proctor said.