Options at free safety appeared to be wide open for Ohio State when Josh Proctor went down for the season, but only one came to fruition in the Buckeyes’ first game without their regular starter.
Even after teasing Marcus Hooker, Ryan Watts and Kourt Williams as players that could see reps as the last line of defense for the Buckeyes, it was Bryson Shaw that played every defensive snap for Ohio State, logging a team-high 88 on Sept. 18. Soon thereafter, secondary coach and defensive play caller Matt Barnes realized that approach would not be sustainable.
Shaw still started against Akron last weekend, but sophomore Lathan Ransom – who started the first three games at cover safety – played 16 more snaps than the third-year Buckeye in his first appearance in the new role.
"If you’re just ranking and looking at, ‘OK, how do we get our best guys on the field?’ We felt like that gave us a chance to move some guys around and try to prevent one guy from having to play 90 snaps in a game,” Barnes said Tuesday. “Bryson Shaw has played outstanding this year, but don’t think anybody can go 90 plays a game for a whole season, as well as he’s played. So it just felt like with three guys playing well and practicing well at cover safety and just getting thinned out at free safety, that move made sense.”
Akron may have been a significant step down from the competition Ohio State faced in its first three games, but the Buckeye pass defense had its best performance of the year against the Zips, holding a team under 200 yards passing for the first time all season. Just one week prior, a Tulsa team that didn’t enter with a record-setting pass attack by any means threw for 428 yards against Ohio State.
The new-look alignment may be one reason for improvement, but head coach Ryan Day said Tuesday that the Buckeyes have gotten better through gaining the experience that many of the young starters on defense simply did not possess at the beginning of the year. Day hopes that continues as Ohio State looks to shore up its rotations heading into the meat of conference play.
“We have a bigger challenge this week, but I think you’re starting to see guys make plays,” Day said. “I think you’re seeing Denzel (Burke) settle into a role here, you’re seeing Ronnie Hickman settle into a role. We have moved Lathan around a little bit, so he’s working through that. Cam (Brown)’s made some plays. We’re kind of looking to really solidify those roles, but it is still good to have some depth there and roll some guys. But you can see, certainly there’s not as much rolling as there was the first couple weeks.”
Ransom, who entered the program in 2020 as a free safety before wowing coaches with his coverage skills, said Wednesday that the first third of the regular season has been an invaluable crash course education in defensive football.
“All the games this year have changed my perspective. I’ve learned a lot,” Ransom said. “Through four games, I’ve learned more football in a short period of time than I’ve learned at any other time period. Basically just learning; taking every game, learning from my coaches, learning from my teammates and learning from mistakes that I’ve made. I’ve learned a lot in the first couple games.”
Ransom’s versatility is not all that allowed coaches to feel comfortable moving their starting cover safety into a new position.
The emergence of Cameron Martinez expedited that process, as the redshirt freshman made the most of his first snaps at cover safety against Tulsa, returning an interception for a 61-yard touchdown and finishing the game with three passes defended. That performance won Martinez the starting job the following week, and Marcus Williamson – last season’s starting cover safety – is still in the mix to give the position depth without Ransom.
“You’ve gotta be fluid, and it’s a constant effort to get the best players on the field and be aware of your overall depth,” Barnes said. “We kind of had a little bit of a logjam there at cover safety there with three good players, and then when we lost Josh, we felt like we needed to provide some depth at that (free safety) position.”
The concepts of solidifying roles in the secondary while experimenting with position switches and starting lineups may seem at odds with each other, but Ransom said it’s clear that the moves have been made in service of the team’s best interests.
“Coach Barnes is trying to find every week the best matchups and the best setup for our defense to be the most successful,” Ransom said. “So if it takes me and Cam moving around, me and Bryson moving around, I think he’s trying to give us the best matchups every week.”
Rutgers is far from an offensive juggernaut. Through the air, the Scarlet Knights are averaging only 194 yards per game, with just 156 coming against Michigan in their first Big Ten game this past week. That said, Tulsa has already proved that an unsuspecting pass attack can put up yards in a hurry against the Ohio State defense.
Ransom said the Buckeyes have made “tremendous strides” since then, and that he won’t be taking a conservative approach to his new position on Saturday.
“They want me to make plays. I think that’s what they expect anyone back there to do,” Ransom said. “But when I go back there, I’m thinking of playing like Lathan Ransom and just making plays.”