In the not-too-distant past, Matt Barnes sat inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and sold those questioning him and listening to him on Ohio State’s strategy at safety. In the then-upcoming 2020 season, he said in October, the Buckeyes would rely primarily on Marcus Hooker as their deep safety and Josh Proctor closer to the line of scrimmage. Hooker was described as an athletic center fielder with “freakish ball skills,” and Proctor was deemed “probably a little more comfortable” covering man-to-man and being “closer to the box.”
That plan, to say the least, didn’t work out the way Barnes and Kerry Coombs hoped.
Hooker managed to last as the starter at the back end of a leaky secondary until he missed the Big Ten championship game with an undisclosed injury. He then remained on the bench for the College Football Playoff even once he had healed. In response, Proctor shifted roles to play Hooker’s deep safety spot in the postseason, holding onto it through the national championship game even though the defensive backfield largely remained a mess.
To get this team’s secondary back to the point where the title BIA can be said and written with a degree of seriousness, the Buckeyes are relying on one of them – Proctor, a rising senior – to steady the back end.
No longer do Barnes and Coombs want the fourth-year from Oklahoma to be roaming around on the first and second level of the defense. This fall, they need him to lock down the secondary as the center field safety they once envisioned Hooker becoming.
“I'm confident in what I do and my abilities. I know I work hard,” Proctor said in April. “So I'm very comfortable back there.”
Throughout his career, Proctor has bounced around between positions.
His combination of athleticism and physicality at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, along with his propensity to find himself around the ball, can make a defensive coach’s mind wander. He entered Greg Schiano’s two-safety scheme when he enrolled three and a half years ago, was primarily the deep safety in Jeff Hafley’s single-high defense the following year while also spending some time learning how to play cornerback, then moved to a safety/slot role last year. Coombs, after getting re-hired last year, talked to him about playing “multiple spots” and learning “every spot in the back end.”
Proctor in the past has described himself as “kind of like a Swiss Army Knife.” Even this spring he said “it doesn’t matter” to him where he lines up.
“Wherever you need me, I'll be there,” Proctor said.
Though that attitude is admirable and his willingness to move around in the secondary since his arrival in 2018 has helped the three regimes of secondary coaches that have had him at their disposal, having one specific positional home might help him out.
It’s difficult to assume too much about this season’s secondary given last year’s disastrous results – when Ohio State ranked 122nd nationally by allowing 304 passing yards per game. But the Buckeyes have enough options elsewhere that he should be able to focus solely on his deep safety duties. Lathan Ransom, Marcus Williamson, Cameron Martinez, Craig Young, Ronnie Hickman and Kourt Williams are all guys who can line up in the slot, serve as the bullet or be a second safety.
“I can actually sit and learn what I need to learn,” Proctor said.
That can benefit the fourth-year safety who sees two main areas he wants to improve: Consistency and communication.
“I know everything I need to work on,” Proctor said. “But my biggest thing this year is really just improving my consistency – being consistent with everything I do.”
At times, Proctor has been a bit of a boom-or-bust safety. He likes the big plays. The explosive hits. The turnovers. His ball-hawking nature, as Shaun Wade said in January, makes him “just the type of safety a lot of people want in this generation that we're in.” Yet selling out for those can sometimes make him susceptible in other areas.
Thus, to learn how to better pick and choose his spots, he has been “taking as much as I can away from coach Barnes” in the film room.
“I think I've improved the most is I've kind of slowed everything down for myself,” Proctor said. “I'm a player that I get excited sometimes. My eyes get going everywhere and I start thinking about a lot. But I think I've slowed down. I've improved on my leadership, bringing the younger guys along. Trying to help them out and just basically just being that leader – taking over that role.”
A veteran talking about turning into more of a leader is a bit of a cliche. Good luck finding any senior who doesn’t reference that as a goal.
It’s a bit different for Proctor, though, considering what he viewed as some of the main reasons for Ohio State’s subpar 2020 pass defense.
“I feel like it had a lot to do with our communication and just our chemistry with each other,” Proctor said. “I feel like communication goes a big way and sometimes, yeah, you know your job but if you don't know what the other person's supposed to be doing or you don't know what the whole point of the defense may be, I guess just breaking those things down and actually learning those things has kind of helped us improve this year. It was our biggest difference from last year. Last year it just kind of seemed like everything was moving so fast. Dealing with corona, not knowing who you're going to have the next week or the next day, everything just kind of felt weird.”
Coronavirus isn’t expected to impact the upcoming season as much as it did last year. Proctor isn’t expected to bounce around positionally as he has done in the past.
Without as much uncertainty both with the team and himself, Proctor could be in for a career year if he can get comfortable.