Tanner McCalister could have gone through the NFL draft process a year ago. Instead, he chose to spend a year at Ohio State.
The former Oklahoma State safety used the extra year of eligibility provided to all players in 2020 to play a fifth and final season of college football in Columbus, where he was the Buckeyes’ starting nickel safety in 2022. Now that he’s actually going through the draft process a year later, he’s glad he made the decision to follow Jim Knowles to Ohio State and play a season with the Buckeyes – even though they came up a bit short of his goal of winning a national title.
“Wish we could have won a national championship. We were obviously that close, so I think that'll hurt for a while,” McCalister told Eleven Warriors in an interview this week. “But as far as just being able to be a Buckeye and being able to make friendships and relationships with guys like Ronnie Hickman and Lathan Ransom, C.J. Stroud, I can name all those guys, but just being able to build those relationships and also be coached by the best, go against the best every single day in practice, that was a blessing for me. It challenged me each and every day as a football player. And obviously, mistakes were made, but also good things happened as well on the field. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. I think I made the best decision for me, and I'm blessed and happy with my decision.”
McCalister believes his season with the Buckeyes, in which he recorded 24 total tackles and a career-high three interceptions, put him in a better position to be drafted than he would have been in a year ago.
“I definitely think I have a better opportunity, with my background of now being a Buckeye for a year and doing some good things,” McCalister said. “Obviously making mistakes as well, but I think it really showed my versatility, showed that I can play in any type of football game, whether it's a Big Ten-type conference or a Big 12. So I definitely think it helps if a team decides to call my name on draft day, I think they'll be getting a great versatile player that knows the game of football and is ready to work.”
Beyond what he was able to do on the field, McCalister says his year at Ohio State prepared him for the next level by teaching him how to work like a professional. While he had already spent four seasons at the Power 5 level at Oklahoma State, he had to adjust to a higher level of expectations at Ohio State, and he believes that experience will be valuable as he now prepares to compete for an NFL roster spot.
“I think anybody that's going to be a Buckeye, and especially gonna be a Buckeye for a long time, you got to know how to be a pro. You gotta know how to be a pro in college,” McCalister said. “And I'm not saying being a pro as in being a professional football player, either. I'm just saying being a pro in life. Like, making sure you're on time, making sure you're making your weight. You really got to be responsible for your 1/11th, which is just doing your job. So I think that’s probably my biggest takeaway. The importance of just doing your job and making sure you're doing your 1/11th.”
McCalister got another opportunity to put his skills on display for NFL scouts last week at the Hula Bowl, a pre-draft all-star game for NFL draft prospects. He believes he was able to put his versatility on further display during the week of practices – in which he spent time repping at cornerback, in the slot and at safety – while he made a pass breakup on a deep ball in the game.
The Hula Bowl also gave McCalister an opportunity to interview with representatives from 19 different NFL teams, giving them the chance to get to know him better and McCalister the chance to show them his football IQ.
“A lot of the scouts, obviously they do a really good job and do their research, so a lot of them, just by talking to whether it was coaches at Ohio State or coaches at Oklahoma State, they kind of knew that I had a good sense of football. But it was good to just kind of clarify that,” McCalister said. “And then on the field, I think I got to show my versatility. I was able to get a lot of reps at many different positions in the back end. Did one-on-ones at corner, played team and 7-on-7s at corner as well. And then obviously, my main position was nickel. So got to show them more reps at nickel as well. And I even repped back at safety when we got to the game. So it was a really good week to show my versatility. So I think those two things is really what I was harping on. My versatility and just my knowledge for football.”
McCalister’s next on-field opportunity to impress NFL scouts will come at either the NFL Scouting Combine or Ohio State’s pro day, depending on whether McCalister receives an invitation to the combine. He hasn’t heard yet whether he will, but he says he’s not sweating it either way because he knows the pro day – which will be headlined by projected first-round picks C.J. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Paris Johnson Jr. – will draw a massive crowd of NFL representatives.
“I know our pro day is going to be just as good as the combine, so I'm not really too worried about that,” McCalister said. “But yeah, just whatever opportunities I get, I'm looking forward to, with my training I'm doing now, looking forward to putting up some good numbers.”
“I wouldn't trade it for anything. I think I made the best decision for me, and I'm blessed and happy with my decision.”– Tanner McCalister on playing a season at Ohio State
McCalister is currently participating in a pre-draft training program alongside other NFL prospects at X3 Performance in Fort Myers, Florida. His primary goal for the pro day and/or combine is to run the 40-yard dash in faster than 4.5 seconds.
“Obviously, at any skill position, you want to run a fast 40. So definitely shooting for the 4.4 range,” McCalister said. “I think that's what they want to see, so that’s definitely my goal, my personal goal, and I think everything else will kind of take care of itself. As far as doing DB drills and all that, that just kind of comes second nature. I’ve been doing them for so long. But definitely in this training process, harping on my 40 and just getting my technique right.”
As for the team he’s now leaving behind, McCalister believes the future is bright at Ohio State. Having seen Knowles’ defense grow from a unit that was ranked outside the top 100 nationally in total defense in their first year at Oklahoma State in 2018 to one that was ranked fourth in the nation in total defense in their final year at Oklahoma State in 2021, McCalister says Buckeye fans should be confident that the best is yet to come for Knowles’ defense in Columbus.
“I think with anything, it takes time to get really, really good at it. And I think even though it was only one year – I know late in the season, it looked bad, but we did some good things this year. We did some really good things this year,” McCalister said. “And I think just with time, Coach Knowles is gonna get even better. He's gonna realize everybody's strengths and weaknesses, and be able to put everybody in the right position to succeed. But like I said, that just comes with time. So I'd be real confident as a Buckeye fan in that defense.”
McCalister says there are things they did defensively by the end of his tenure at Oklahoma State that they didn’t do this past season at Ohio State, leaving more concepts for Knowles to potentially add to the defense in his second year as defensive coordinator.
“We didn't do everything that we did at Oklahoma State. But also the conference is a little different as well. So there are certain things that we did up at Oklahoma State that he may not install at Ohio State,” McCalister said. “But yeah, we definitely couldn't do everything. So there's definitely still things that he has in his bag that maybe he'll bring out.”
McCalister is one of two starting safeties from Ohio State this past season now going through the NFL draft process, along with Ronnie Hickman, but McCalister expects new starters to step up following their departures. He specifically named rising sophomores Sonny Styles and Kye Stokes as two safeties who he believes have bright futures as Buckeyes, while he expects Ransom to be a leader at the position after he opted to stay at Ohio State for his senior season.
“I just saw Lathan coming back, and that's a really good safety. That's my guy. And you got guys like Sonny Styles who's gonna come on the scene, he's a really big body, I think he can do a lot of things close to the box and even in space, so I'm excited,” McCalister said. “I'm excited to see what those guys do. I mean, those are my brothers now, so we're gonna stay in touch for a really long time. And Kye Stokes as well, it was fun watching him grow. And I think he'll continue to grow and become a really good player. And then even some of the young guys I was able to meet that are coming in now, I think this year is gonna be really fun just to see guys develop even more, and hopefully that back end is flying around making plays and picking balls off.”
While McCalister is now focused on trying to achieve his dream of playing in the NFL, he says he’ll still be keeping a close eye on the Buckeyes from afar.
“I'm definitely gonna stay in touch,” McCalister said. “I mean, I was talking to Kye and Sonny the other day, those guys getting back to training and everything and they were just asking me how everything's been going with me. So definitely gonna stay in touch with those guys and all of the Buckeyes. Hopefully there’s many more natties to come.”