Coming out of his first spring at Ohio State, Kye Stokes looked to be on the fast track to potentially playing an immediate role in the Buckeyes’ secondary as a true freshman. It didn’t turn out that way.
Even though Stokes was the first freshman to lose his black stripe last offseason and a star of the Buckeyes’ spring game, he ended up playing only 82 defensive snaps in his first year at Ohio State. Thirty-two of those snaps came in Ohio State’s fifth game of the season as Rutgers, when he filled in at nickel safety after Tanner McCalister exited the game with Cameron Martinez unavailable. The rest of Stokes’ defensive snaps came in late-game situations where the Buckeyes already had a win in hand.
Stokes’ lack of playing time was in part because the Buckeyes’ three starting safeties this past season – Ronnie Hickman, Lathan Ransom and McCalister – rarely rotated off the field. But Stokes said he wasn’t necessarily ready to play a bigger role this past fall even though he had such a promising spring.
“Spring is different than the regular season,” Stokes told Eleven Warriors in an interview at Ohio State’s media day before the Peach Bowl. “From spring to the regular season, I just realized that there are things that separated me from the starters. And I just realized that those are the things I have to work on.”
Even in a season where he played only sparingly, Stokes’ inexperience was apparent at times when he was on the field. For instance, a bad angle taken by Stokes from the free safety spot after he entered the game against Wisconsin allowed Badgers running back Braelon Allen to run untouched to the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown.
75 yards, untouched, to the end zone. @BraelonAllen x @BadgerFootball pic.twitter.com/SxfGhyGNuK— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 25, 2022
Plays like that, though, served as learning experiences for Stokes as he went through his freshman year.
“I think it’s been filled with a lot of ups and downs. A lot of character-building moments, as Coach E (safeties coach Perry Eliano) would say,” Stokes said when asked to assess how his first year at Ohio State had gone. “But I think it was a good first year, a good developmental year for me, just to get my feet wet and really understand what it's like to be a college athlete.”
The playmaking range Stokes demonstrated in last year’s spring game made it apparent Stokes has the physical potential to develop into an elite safety. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, Stokes has excellent speed and the versatility to line up at numerous spots in the secondary. While he may have the highest upside as a center-fielding free safety, he held his own when he stepped in at nickel safety last season and could even potentially play cornerback in a pinch.
Kye Stokes Spring Game Mix pic.twitter.com/9I6aHHeTSp— Colton Denning (@Dubsco) April 17, 2022
What Stokes learned in his first year as a Buckeye, however, was how important the mental side of the game is at the collegiate level.
“The game is first played in your head. If you can really understand the game and really understand what this team’s going to do compared to how we game plan, it really helps you play faster,” Stokes said when asked the biggest lesson he learned as a freshman.
Going into his second year, Stokes plans to place a greater emphasis on film study both as he seeks to improve his own game this offseason and as he prepares for opponents during the season, which he believes is the key to becoming a starting-caliber player as a sophomore.
“I think watching film the right way. Really knowing what to look for when I watch film and I study my practice film. Correcting myself and looking at the small details,” Stokes said when asked what he thinks he can improve upon in 2023. “And then when I'm watching the opponent's film, just paying attention to the small things and picking up on the little tendencies and things of that nature that can really take my game to the next level.”
Despite not playing much as a freshman, Stokes believes he is already a substantially better player entering his second year than he was when first arrived at Ohio State a year ago.
“I think I'm light years better,” Stokes said. “There's so many things that college can teach you, not even about just the game but life in general. So I think I've taken great leaps and bounds and improvement coming out of high school, especially coming out of spring, to now.”
Eliano believes Stokes still has plenty of room to grow and keep getting better, but he’s pleased with the development he’s seen from Stokes so far.
“Ever since January, we’ve seen great growth. I've seen growth in the spring with Kye, in the spring game. And I've seen growth in the summer. But it's a process,” Eliano said before the Peach Bowl. “When you come to Ohio State, you're playing with and against the best of the best. And so I think the growth from Kye on and off the field has been tremendous. And the beauty of it is he’s still got a lot of growing to do. But the thing I love about him is he’s coachable, he's got an open mind, he’s willing to learn, he's willing to be coached hard and he wants to be the very best he can be on and off the field. And that's all you ask for as a coach.”
With Hickman and McCalister both now preparing for NFL careers, Stokes could be a candidate to replace either of them in the starting lineup next season. But he’ll face plenty of competition to earn one of those roles.
If Ransom stays at strong safety, Stokes would likely be in line to start at free safety, as he took second-team reps behind Hickman at that position in 2022. Given that Ransom also played some snaps at the adjuster spot last year, though, the Buckeyes could move Ransom to free safety with Sonny Styles, Josh Proctor and Kourt Williams all being potential candidates to start at strong safety.
Stokes’ experience filling in at nickel safety as a freshman could make him an option to replace McCalister at that spot, too, though Syracuse transfer Ja’Had Carter and Martinez are the frontrunners there.
For both the near and long term, keeping Stokes at free safety seems like the most logical move even if Ransom ends up starting there this season. Outside of Ransom and Stokes, the only other safety on the roster who projects as likely to play free safety this year is true freshman Malik Hartford, positioning Stokes to be the next man up behind Ransom this year and his successor in 2024.
If Stokes isn’t a starter, he could still be a candidate to earn situational snaps as an extra safety in dime packages or in a rotational capacity. Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has said he prefers to lean on his starters in the back end, but with a deep group of returning safeties this year, that could theoretically change if the Buckeyes believe they have more than three safeties who belong on the field and can help them in different ways.
Regardless of what his role ends up being in 2023, Stokes appears to have a promising future as a Buckeye. While he arrived at Ohio State without a ton of fanfare as the No. 351 overall recruit in the 2022 class, Stokes has already bolstered his stock with the potential he showed as a freshman, setting himself up to push for a marquee role in the secondary sooner than later.