Josh Proctor’s future at Ohio State was far from certain at the end of the 2022 season.
The fifth-year safety was benched on the first series of Ohio State's season opener against Notre Dame and was supplanted in the starting lineup by Lathan Ransom not long after. In the Buckeyes' final two games, Proctor was relegated strictly to a special teams role. That’s not how things were supposed to play out in what could’ve been the last year in scarlet and gray for the top-75 overall 2018 recruit.
So the Oklahoma native mulled over his options. At the start of the offseason, it seemed more likely Proctor would transfer or enter the NFL draft than come back to Columbus. But ultimately he decided to stay put, and given the first-team free safety reps he’s received in practice this spring, that choice appears to be working out well thus far.
“I'd say (I was) 50-50. Didn't think too much about it and tried to think a lot about it at the same time,” said Proctor about considering his next move in January. “Then at the end of the day I trusted God, I prayed day in and day out. And I felt like I made the best decision at the end of the day. … I guess the deciding factor for me was just having a chance to help these younger guys out and really take on that leader role and not just talk about it, but be about it. Stand on my business. So I feel like that was really where I decided that yeah, this is the place for me. And I know the coaches got my back.
“Honestly, I just felt like it's the best fit for me. And can't nobody stop me if I get out my own way. So just decided to stay here, buckle down and handle my business.”
Before he made his final decision, Proctor had some honest conversations with his position coach. Perry Eliano was transparent about what he felt the best possible outcomes were for both Ohio State and Proctor himself, and they both seemed to align with a sixth collegiate season in a Buckeye uniform.
“I sat down with him. We talked as men, and I explained this is what I feel is best for us as a football team first, and then I think this is going to be best for you individually,” Eliano said. “There's 110 percent trust in the room. And that's where it starts. And so when we had that conversation, it was very easy because there's a real relationship, real trust and real bond. … he understood that he needed to come back, he understood that there was more development for him and it had nothing to do with age, because it's about a mindset. And so I'm glad he's back. I mean, he's worked his tail off. You can see each and every day he's getting better and better as we've done offseason workouts and in spring ball.”
Now 24 years old, Proctor said he’s matured over the past several years and believes bringing a more consistent approach to his on- and off-field responsibilities will be key to – as he put it – getting out of his own way.
“I love to compete, I love this atmosphere, I love Ohio State. So I just felt like this was literally the best decision for me.”– Proctor on returning to OSU
Asked about Proctor’s comment, Eliano said improvement will come as he learns to focus on the present instead of looking too far down the road.
“With Josh, it's just more of just taking it one moment at a time,” Eliano said. “Don't be in a rush to get old. Don't be in a rush to go to the NFL. Don't be in a rush for the next day. Let's live in the moment. Let's live in the moment and be the very best version of yourself in the moment. And I think that's where he's coming from with that.”
Based on how snaps have been allocated so far this spring, it looks likely that a starting job is in Proctor’s future come fall.
Denzel Burke with the pick during an INT return drill with the first-team OSU defense.— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) March 28, 2023
Burke, Hancock, Proctor, Ransom, Martinez, Chambers, Simon, Sawyer, JT, Tyleik, Hamilton. pic.twitter.com/R2qEq2iUOt
Proctor began 2022 as Ohio State’s starting boundary safety, but Ransom quickly usurped him en route to earning a nod as a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist. With last year’s starting free safety Ronnie Hickman headed to the NFL, many thought Ransom might fill that void for Ohio State in 2023. But in Saturday’s first spring scrimmage, Ransom remained at strong safety while Proctor took first-team reps at Knowles’ “adjuster” position.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound defensive back previously played free safety in spurts across several seasons at Ohio State, and he’s thrilled to be back at the position he was recruited to the program to play.
“I came in playing free safety, that's kind of what I was used to,” Proctor said. “See ball, get ball. I like running around, being that kind of free guy, just roaming. … Honestly, I thought I was gonna be at the bandit. I didn't care, I just wanted to be on the field, honestly. Didn't matter. So when they threw it at me, I kind of got excited. I was excited, definitely, because I love free safety. But I didn't really put too much thought into it. I didn't have too many conversations with them about it.”
Now in a position he may be more comfortable at, Proctor also has the benefit of coaching continuity. Accounting for Kerry Coombs’ midseason demotion-of-sorts in 2021, Proctor had five different defensive coordinators in his first five seasons with the Buckeyes. With Knowles and Eliano both back in 2023, he can settle into the scheme.
“This is my first time. First time in seven years, honestly. Had a new coach, new system every year since I've been here,” Proctor said. “So that's probably been the biggest challenge. … It feels good. I'm learning my new spot, and as far as that goes, I mean not really much has changed. But it's definitely easier to pick up on things and remember things from last year that I probably didn't notice.”
Between all the coaching changes, a season-ending injury in Week 2 of the 2021 season and dealing with both internal and external expectations to perform at a higher level, Proctor’s been through a lot since arriving at Ohio State in 2018. But Eliano thinks fighting through all of those experiences will end up benefitting Proctor in the long run.
“He's built a lot of callus. He's had a lot of adversity,” Eliano said. “You think, before I got here, he started against Minnesota and then he goes into the Oregon game, first home game, and he's actually playing pretty well. And all of a sudden, injury bug hits and he's out for the year. So you have a new coach that comes in, you have to learn me, you have to learn a new system, albeit you're not able to practice yet. So I think the young man has grown tremendously through adversity and develop the toughness and the callus that it's going to take – not only to be the very best version of himself now, but also in life.”
Proctor won’t deny it: returning to Ohio State was not an automatic decision after a disappointing fifth season. But there’s no place he’d rather be, and he’ll have a chance at a career year if he continues to build on the progress he’s made this spring.
“I'm not gonna lie and say that I didn't (consider leaving). But at the same time, this is always the place I wanted to be,” Proctor said. “So I signed that letter of intent to come here, I love to compete, I love this atmosphere, I love Ohio State. So I just felt like this was literally the best decision for me and it helped me grow in a lot of different ways.”