We all lived it, agonizing over an Ohio State defense that couldn't consistently stop any offense of significance before it all came to a head in a 52-24 thrashing handed out by Nick Saban's Crimson Tide in the national championship game.
Allowing 621 total yards – 464 through the air – and giving up eight scoring drives while forcing just two punts and one turnover was a bit more than usual, yet wasn't entirely shocking based on the unit's body of work to that point.
On the season, the Buckeyes ranked No. 122 out of 127 teams in pass defense (304.0 ypg), No. 59 in total defense (401.6 ypg) and No. 43 in scoring defense (25.8 ppg).
The sharp decline in defensive effectiveness – the 2019 Buckeyes ranked No. 1 in both total defense (259.7 ypg) and pass defense (156.0 ypg) – was fueled by the departures of Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller in the secondary along with Chase Young, among others, in the front seven.
Last year, with spring drills abruptly canceled due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and an abbreviated fall camp, breaking in replacements proved an insurmountable task for defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs and company.
Despite the carnage, there were a few bright spots signaling a chance of better days ahead. One of those came as safety Josh Proctor, in his third year in the program, emerged as a starter, replacing a struggling Marcus Hooker before the Big Ten Championship Game and continuing in that role versus Clemson and Alabama in the College Football Playoff.
It would be a stretch to say Proctor set the world on fire, but he showed flashes as a playmaker and big-time hitter who often seemed to be around the football. With that came sporadic issues of being out of position due to overpursuit in run support and/or relying too much on raw talent and not staying within his assignment.
Truth be told, the prevailing notion leading into the 2020 season was Proctor would actually start right from the jump after backing up Jordan Fuller the previous season. That wasn't to be, however, as Hooker started the first five games.
In a reserve role over Ohio State's first five games (with one DNP), Proctor recorded 10 tackles. Over the final three contests as a starter, he posted another 10 stops, added an interception against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game and dropped at least two other interception chances.
His pick against Northwestern came at a crucial time with Ohio State nursing a 13-10 lead late in the third quarter.
Entering the 2021 season, Proctor could be the only free safety with significant experience considering Hooker's precarious standing as a currently suspended player coming off a subpar season before his recent OVI arrest.
Proctor logged 354 snaps in 2020 after seeing 123 as a true freshman while Hooker saw 288 a season ago.
It should be noted veteran Marcus Williamson returns for 2021 and while primarily a slot corner/strong safety for much of last season, he did see time next to Proctor when the Buckeyes used more two-safety looks in the College Football Playoff after going with a mostly single-high safety scheme for much of the season.
Speaking of two-safety looks, that could be more of a trend in 2021. As our Colin Hass-Hill recently wrote when exploring if/how Ohio State might actually use the bullet position, even Ryan Day is unclear on exactly how things will unfold offering.
“Finding that mix of the nickel/safety/strong safety/free safety – what is that all going to look like?” Day said last week. “I think that's something that we're excited to find out.”
Assuming that'll be the case, Proctor is the leader in the clubhouse for a starting safety spot with Williamson and Lathan Ransom figuring to see many snaps too.
But the names don't stop there with Ronnie Hickman, Bryson Shaw and Kourt Williams also hoping to climb the depth chart. Williams is someone Day's gone out of his way to mention on a few occasions as being in the mix at a safety spot. He tore his ACL last season, but the staff remains high on his skill set and he could surely make a bid for legit snaps if healthy this fall.
Bottom line: options to mix and match appear prevalent as Ohio State makes a bid to retool a secondary focused on rebounding from an awful 2020. Amid those choices, it would surely be a boost if Proctor, as one of Coombs' most-seasoned safeties, takes a major step forward to solidify the last line of the defense.