Even with Josh Proctor on the field, Ohio State had major defensive maladies. Now without its starting free safety for the rest of the season, the wounds only fester that much more.
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said all options are on the table for retooling the rotation at safety in Proctor’s absence, including the prospect of switching certain defensive backs into the role from another position.
“We’re looking at all that to try to make some adjustments. Losing Josh for the whole year kind of changes some things,” Day said at Tuesday’s press conference. “Bryson (Shaw)’s had some good snaps in there, but we’re gonna have to look at what gives us the best chance moving forward. Possibly trying some guys at different spots is things we’re looking at.”
Shaw, a third-year Buckeye and former three-star recruit, graded out as a champion in the season opener when he filled in for Proctor, who suffered an apparent shoulder injury in the fourth quarter against Minnesota. When Proctor was subsequently listed as a game-time decision for Oregon, Shaw made his first career start, but there wasn’t much of a positive consensus about his performance.
On a couple poor angles taken in attempts to stop the run, Shaw helped allow Ducks running back C.J. Verdell to gash the Buckeyes on multiple occasions, and his coverage on Oregon tight end Moliki Matavao – or lack thereof – gave Anthony Brown a wide open target in the end zone on a crucial fourth quarter touchdown.
Oregons last TD. If Josh Proctors injury is as serious as it looked, OSU has to find an answer at safety. This wont cut it. pic.twitter.com/SOJW0TCpTy— Bill Rabinowitz (@brdispatch) September 13, 2021
Proctor wasn’t inserted into the lineup until the second quarter, but with 7:38 to play in the third, the Oklahoma native suffered a leg fracture that Day confirmed to be a season-ending injury.
The Buckeye coaching staff turned to Proctor at the free safety position a season ago when things went awry for the pass defense with Marcus Hooker as the starter, and when Ohio State opened the year at Minnesota, Proctor was the only member of the secondary that wasn’t making his first career start.
With questions surrounding Ohio State’s personnel, scheme and coaching on defense after Saturday's defeat to Oregon, the last thing the unit could afford was the loss of one of its most tenured performers. In the midst of larger philosophical questions on defense, though, that’s exactly what the staff will have to contend with.
“We need experience on defense right now,” Day said. “We don’t have a lot of guys with experience, and so when you lose a guy like that, it hurts because he has played for us. When you look back there, there’s a lot of guys that haven’t. So that’s another shot.”
If Shaw is not the answer, Hooker could quickly find himself back in the mix. The fourth-year Buckeye started the majority of Ohio State’s eight-game season at free safety in 2020, albeit with very mixed results, and hasn’t yet seen a defensive snap in 2021. After an offseason OVI arrest, Day said Hooker is on a “zero tolerance policy” in the program, but is fully eligible to play.
Should Hooker fail to rise on the depth chart, Ohio State will have no other choice but to groom players from other secondary positions for the role. Perhaps the most obvious answer is sophomore cover safety and first-year starter Lathan Ransom, who Buckeye secondary coach Matt Barnes said this preseason was thought to be more of a free safety during his recruitment.
“If you watched Lathan’s high school film, he was a more deep-field oriented, middle-field safety. He ended up being a much better cover player than we anticipated,” Barnes said in August. “Now I would expect to see Lathan all over the field this year. But if you go back to the Clemson game, you saw him mostly covering in the slot, and that was something that we were not necessarily anticipating him doing at such a high level. That’s one thing that we didn’t anticipate him doing that well that he does very well. But I would expect to see him all over the field.”
As fate would have it, Ransom was actually asked in the preseason about what would happen if Proctor were to suffer an unfortunate injury during the season. Ransom said he didn’t want to talk about the possibility of a teammate getting injured, but that he feels “comfortable playing any safety position we have.”
Another candidate for the job could be redshirt freshman cornerback Ryan Watts, who started the season opener for Ohio State with Cameron Brown and Sevyn Banks out, but did not play against Oregon. Listed at 6-foot-3, Watts is taller than any corner Coombs has previously coached, and his 205-pound frame is every bit as big as Proctor’s. Watts doesn’t have a wealth of experience playing safety, but given his size, the possibility can’t be ruled out.
Marcus Williamson, last year’s starting cover safety, could also see an uptick in game reps after being almost entirely phased out of the defense in favor of Ransom in the first two games. Through two weeks, the fifth-year senior has played a total of nine snaps.
Day didn’t dissect exactly what the Buckeyes have planned for the position, and he opted not to discuss any specifics regarding the “structural changes” he said are coming for Ohio State on defense. The head coach will get more involved on that side of the ball though, as Day is well aware that difficult conversations must take place for improvement to follow.
“We have good coaches, we have good players, and so we can figure this out,” Day said. “But we have to ask hard questions and maybe make things uncomfortable, and that’s part of my job.”