Even three weeks after the spring game, Jim Knowles wasn’t prepared to divulge any type of two-deep rotation at safety.
Although multiple first-teamers already seem clear in Knowles’ three-safety system, the first-year Buckeye defensive coordinator opted to avoid specifics when discussing the potential lineup during the first week of May.
“I think it's just still a work in progress,” Knowles said. “So that's all I'm gonna say.”
Despite several unknowns, Knowles has already said enough for some things to be rather plain. Perhaps most of all is Tanner McCalister’s status as a starter at nickel safety, which Knowles brought his former pupil over from Oklahoma State to play.
Knowles also confirmed last month that some combination of Ronnie Hickman, Kourt Williams and Josh Proctor will fill the top slots at his adjuster and bandit safety positions. Given the complimentary language he used to describe Hickman all spring, there’s little doubt the redshirt junior will start at free safety to open the season barring any unforeseen circumstances.
More questions arise at the bandit spot, where Williams began the spring as the presumptive No. 1 while Proctor could only participate in non-contact work (if any at all). By the time the spring game started, it was Proctor starting at bandit while Williams dealt with injuries of his own.
“(Williams) had some he was battling some injuries, you know. So I think Kourt can be really effective for us as a safety,” Knowles said. “He wasn't completely healthy all spring, so I'm really looking forward to him coming back healthy because I think he can – he'll be right there with everybody else and we need that at safety. We need multiple players at safety to make plays.”
Beyond the aforementioned slate of four safeties, several transfers have thinned out the depth in the position room. Bryson Shaw, Ohio State's starting free safety after Proctor's season-ending injury last year, is off to USC. Craig Young, who could have been a candidate for the bandit spot, will play his next season at Kansas. Potential backup nickel Lejond Cavazos moved on to North Carolina.
Andre Turrentine, who led the entire team in snaps played during the spring game, was the latest transfer out of the program at the position. The second-year safety will play for Tennessee this fall instead.
If there’s a silver lining to come out of those losses for the Buckeyes, it’s that they’ve opened up an opportunity for at least one bright prospect who has already turned heads in his first few months with the program.
Ranked lower than 18 other Buckeye signees in the 2022 recruiting class, Kye Stokes was the first true freshman to shed his black stripe this spring, and he showed everyone why in the spring game. Stokes was credited with two pass breakups and nine total tackles in the scrimmage. Operating at the adjuster position, the Florida native made plays in both pass coverage and the run game.
Proctor started last season as the Buckeyes’ No. 1 free safety before suffering a leg fracture against Oregon in Week 2, but now that he’s working at bandit, it appears the way has been cleared for Stokes to be the No. 2 adjuster behind Hickman. Given the questions on the depth chart, Knowles said Stokes will have to step up for the Buckeyes in his first season of college football, and he already looks comfortable doing so.
“I think we have some number issues there, right? There's going to be opportunities for a young guy like Kye to have an immediate impact in the depth,” Knowles said. “So it was good to see him make progress and we're going to need him to step up because of that.”
Stokes isn’t the only underclassman who might be expected to play a real role for the Buckeyes in 2022, but as far as safeties are concerned, he certainly appears to be the most important.
“Kye had really made progress at the end there and in the spring game, but they all stood out in some way,” Knowles said. “I think it's a great crew. And, you know, I'm pretty demanding on those guys. And then every now and then I have to stop myself and say, ‘Oh, this guy should be at the senior prom right now.’ But I push, push, push on those guys, too. And I thought they handled it well.”
The Buckeyes will also have third-year defensive backs Cameron Martinez and Lathan Ransom back this season, and either could see time at the adjuster or nickel positions in 2022. Ransom’s health will continue to be a question, as the Arizona native suffered a leg fracture in the Rose Bowl, but he and Martinez will bolster the depth at safety if healthy. Both players started games for Ohio State in 2021 and have shown flashes of stellar play early in their respective careers.
Martinez will likely begin the year as the No. 2 nickel behind McCalister, but if Stokes' development stalls and Ransom remains in recovery, he could slot in behind Hickman at free safety as well.
If Proctor and Williams get healthy, and McCalister and Hickman stay that way, Knowles and company may not have to dip too far into the depth chart at safety after all. But if problems arise or competition emerges at a particular spot, Knowles won’t shy away from expanding the rotation.
“I'm open to playing as many guys who have earned the right to play and can help the defense. I'm open to that,” Knowles said. “But playing defense at Ohio State, you have to earn it. You have to be able to show it in practice and understand the defense. Where you fit and how you fit. Be able to explain it. So there's a process, but if a lot of guys have earned that level, then I'm up for playing a lot of guys.”