Injury Issues Costing Kourt Williams A Bigger Role in the Buckeye Secondary: “We Need to Give Him Time to Get Better”

By Griffin Strom on October 5, 2022 at 8:35 am
Kourt Williams

Notre Dame’s reliance on tight end Michael Mayer seemed a perfect opportunity for Kourt Williams to show his strengths at the start of the 2022 season. Then the Buckeye captain didn’t take a single defensive snap in the season opener.

Perhaps Jim Knowles saw something others didn’t when scouting the matchup. But Williams’ lack of a role on the Buckeye defense hasn’t been specific to any single game since then.

The third-year safety and No. 166 prospect in the 2020 class, whose intangibles have drawn heaps of praise from Ohio State coaches and teammates since arriving on campus, has played just 42 snaps over the first five games. The Buckeyes’ first-string bandit safety at the start of spring camp, Williams appeared primed for a breakout campaign in 2022. Instead, he’s primarily been relegated to the sidelines for nearly the first full half of the year.

Williams hasn’t appeared on Ohio State’s status report before any game thus far, so health concerns haven’t been much of a talking point. But when Knowles was asked about Williams Tuesday, Knowles said Williams’ absence on the field has largely been due to injury issues.

“Kourt has been banged up. He's had some things going on that haven't given him the chance to fully compete to earn a position,” Knowles said at a press conference at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. “So he's a great leader, and certainly we hope he comes along, but he's not completely healthy. So we need to give him time to get better.”

With Josh Proctor and Lathan Ransom still recovering from leg fractures at the start of spring, Williams ran with Ronnie Hickman and Tanner McCalister as one of Ohio State’s three starting safeties. Then it was Williams who was hit with the injury bug, allowing Proctor to make the start in the spring game despite still not being cleared for full contact.

At the time, there was no indication that Williams’ issue would be a long-term one. But Proctor and Ransom have received the lion’s share of reps atop the depth chart at Knowles’ boundary safety position since the start of the season. Even though each missed a game over the first four weeks, Williams saw no significant increase in reps.

Even true freshman Sonny Styles, a 17-year-old who would have been a senior in high school this year if not for his reclassification, has played more than Williams at bandit over the past three games.

Styles’ trajectory as a five-star recruit and the top-30 player in the nation might be higher than Williams’ ever was. Just last week, Ryan Day called the 6-foot-4 prodigy “special” and said he’s surprised Styles has already made as much of an impact as he has. Proctor described Styles as “different” during a pre-Rutgers interview session, and said he’s nicknamed the freshman “Man-Child” due to his physical tools and mature demeanor.

Still, Williams’ talent coupled with his experience in the program would figure to place him higher than fourth on the bandit depth chart. Styles’ ceiling is undeniable, but a health issue gives more reason to Williams’ surprising lack of opportunity so far, even if it hadn’t been discussed publicly this season prior to Tuesday.

After the final play of this past weekend’s Rutgers matchup, Williams was slow to get up as players, staff members and media took to the field, and an Ohio State trainer was quick to have a word with the redshirt sophomore before he joined teammates for their customary postgame rendition of Carmen Ohio.

“Kourt has been banged up. He’s had some things going on that haven’t given him the chance to fully compete to earn a position.”– Jim Knowles

Neither the nature of Williams’ injury, nor if it’s the same one that plagued him during the spring, has been publicly disclosed by the Buckeye staff. Either way, it’s not the first time Williams has suffered an injury setback since joining the program.

Williams was one of the first two Buckeye freshmen to shed their black stripe prior to the COVID-shortened 2020 season, and even that early in his college career, Day went out of his way to highlight the California native as a player to watch.

“Kourt Williams is a young guy who I think has a chance to be a really, really good player here,” Day said that preseason. “His approach has been excellent. He’s versatile, he can do a lot of things, so that’s someone to keep an eye on.”

Less than a month after his black stripe removal, Buckeye fans learned they wouldn’t have a chance to watch Williams on the field at all as a freshman, as he suffered a torn ACL in October 2020. The injury left Williams limited even by the start of his second year, in which he didn’t take a defensive snap until Week 3.

By the end of 2021, though, Williams made his first start in scarlet and gray, giving the Buckeyes a bigger safety in its effort to better defend the Utah run game in the Rose Bowl. While his 47 snaps against the Utes were a career-high, they weren’t a complete anomaly, as Williams logged 22 or more snaps on six occasions throughout the season. That’s more than he’s played in any game so far this season.

Williams’ second-year strides took place under a different defensive regime. Once Knowles took over, he hinted Williams’ coverage skills may need to be rounded out as a 220-pound safety, but only spoke glowingly about him beyond that.

“We feel like he can get into the run fit there when we want him. We feel that he’s a guy who’s a leader,” Knowles said in March. “Off the field, when I watched him in the weight room, he’s a worker, he’s a leader. So I like him with more depth and vision to be able to see the ball and to control kind of the movements of the secondary.”

Given his status as Buckeye captain, something Day predicted would come to fruition during Williams’ recruitment, his leadership ability has remained consistent. Williams’ time on the field, however, has not.

Whether a healthy Williams would rival Proctor and Ransom for time at the top of the depth chart is unclear, but Knowles’ comments made clear that Williams’ chances of earning a bigger role this season will depend at least in part on his health.

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