Ohio State Expects Sonny Styles to Play “Streamlined” Role in 2023

By Dan Hope on April 3, 2023 at 10:10 am
Sonny Styles

Ohio State expects Sonny Styles to make an impact on its defense this year. Midway through spring practices, however, Styles appears more likely to play a situational role than as a starter.

While a starting spot at strong safety could have opened up if Lathan Ransom moved to free safety, Ohio State has instead decided to keep the 2022 Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist at strong safety this spring. That could leave Styles’ path to a full-time role in the Buckeyes’ secondary blocked for another year.

One way or another, Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles expects Styles to be a part of his defensive game plans this season.

“Yeah, I think when you look at the potential best 11 players for the 2023 defense, he's a guy that our staff is gonna point at and say, ‘We need to find a way to get him in there,’” Knowles said after Ohio State’s first practice of the spring. “He held his own in the (College Football Playoff semifinal against Georgia), and I think he's just got all kinds of skills. So yeah, we gotta experiment with him in different places. See what's best for Sonny and our defense. But he's definitely on our mind, and he will be all spring in terms of getting him into a position that's effective for the defense.”

Neither Knowles nor Ohio State safeties coach Perry Eliano is ready to say what that role will look like yet. Knowles said that might not be determined until preseason camp, as the Buckeyes are focusing primarily on building depth in their base defense this spring rather than putting in subpackages.

“In spring, you're really working on the basics, making sure that he and everyone else has a mastery of the base defense. And then when you get more schemey as you go into camp, and if he or anyone else has proven themselves in the spring and the beginning of camp, now you can start to use more creativity to build a spot for him,” Knowles said last week.

For now, Styles is taking most of his reps with the second-team defense at strong safety. Knowles’ challenge to Styles and other young players currently in backup roles is to “dominate with the twos,” which will force him to give them more first-team reps and find roles for them within the defense. If that happens, Knowles didn’t rule out the possibility that Styles could end up in the starting lineup by the time the season rolls around, whether that means moving Ransom or Styles to free safety or even Styles usurping Ransom altogether.

“I think when you start out, you have to establish depth. You gotta establish competition. We need to be better as a defense, and I think everybody needs to feel that competition. So having Sonny there right now establishes a nice competition with him and Lathan,” Knowles said. “And then, ultimately, you're right. We think they both can play. And then it's my job to find a way to get them both on the field.”

Eliano thinks a more specified and situational role could be the best path forward for Styles in 2023 as the Buckeyes look to maximize his strengths.

“We've streamlined it for Sonny. So you'll see Sonny more in a streamlined position to where he can excel and utilize his God-given ability,” Eliano said. “Really and truthfully, we want him to be great at specific things instead of okay at a lot of things. So that's the conversation, what I mean by streamlining. So you won't see him in a lot of places. You'll see him pretty stationary in one to two spots.”

When asked specifically what that role could look like, Eliano said “it still remains to be seen,” and “we're kind of dabbling in some things.” When asked if it could look similar to Styles' role against Georgia, though, Eliano responded affirmatively.

“To a certain degree, absolutely,” Eliano replied.

What Styles’ role could look like

In the Peach Bowl, Styles effectively played as a Sam linebacker, as he lined up at the linebacker level rather than at safety depth for his 12 snaps against the Bulldogs. Most of those snaps came early in the game before Georgia tight end Darnell Washington left the game with an injury, so he might have played even more in the CFP semifinal if not for Washington’s early exit.

Sonny Styles vs. Georgia
Sonny Styles lined up as a linebacker for most of his 12 snaps against Georgia.

Styles said it gave him a confidence boost to be trusted with playing a significant role in a College Football Playoff game before the end of his freshman year.

“Them putting that confidence in me, giving me that big of a role in that big of a game, I think that meant a lot to me,” Styles said last week. 

At 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds, Styles offers a unique combination of size, athleticism and coverage ability that could give the Buckeyes flexibility in multiple ways. When matching up with multi-tight end formations, Styles allows the Buckeyes to put another bigger body on the field while still playing with three safeties. Theoretically, subbing in Styles at one of the two main linebacker spots could also be a dime-package option for the Buckeyes in passing situations. However, it’s unclear whether Ohio State is considering that option.

Styles says he’ll be ready to play any role the Buckeyes ask him to play, and he’s trying to take advantage of every rep he gets this spring to show he can be trusted to play more. But he’s on board with Eliano’s plan to utilize him in a streamlined capacity.

“Right now, I'm kind of just doing two positions, just trying to get good at one thing. Not trying to just be okay at everything. I want to be good at one thing,” Styles said. “Whatever Coach E puts in front of me, I’ll focus on that.”

An argument can certainly be made that Styles should be playing more than just a situational role as a sophomore, considering he was ranked as the No. 12 overall prospect and No. 1 safety in the recruiting class of 2022, even after reclassifying from the class of 2023. He’s one of the most gifted talents on the Buckeyes’ entire roster, and poor safety play was a major factor in Ohio State’s losses to Michigan and Georgia to conclude last season.

Ransom’s overall performance in 2022 makes him a clear frontrunner to start, though, and Ohio State views strong safety as the best position for him. That could change if Josh Proctor doesn’t lock down the starting job at free safety, though Kye Stokes and Ja’Had Carter could also be candidates to man the adjuster position.

Ultimately, Eliano and Knowles are charged with determining how best to utilize Ohio State’s variety of safety talent so the Buckeyes can play better defense and earn wins against top competition. Eliano expects Styles to be a part of that plan, but he wants to put Styles in a position that allows him to do what he does best.

“The beauty of it now is year two, I've been around the guys, they've been around me, I know exactly what they are and where their strengths are. And we're continuing to close the gap on their challenges,” Eliano said. “You gotta realize, Sonny didn't have a spring ball last year. He came in in the summer, and then all of a sudden, here comes fall camp as a 17-year-old. So now he's 18 years old with his first full spring, and he's excelling. And the beauty of it is, like I said, he's coachable. He understands the game of football. And he's hungry to continue to get better each and every day.

“So I know his strengths, I know where he's challenged, and I know what we got to do to continue to get better. But he is definitely going to help this football team win games and execute at a high level.”

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