Better Know a Buckeye: Malik Hartford Has the Experience, Ball-Hawking Ability, Instincts and Range As a Safety to Excel in Jim Knowles' Defense

By Josh Poloha on April 27, 2023 at 11:35 am
Malik Hartford

Better Know A Buckeye is our look at every member of Ohio State’s 2023 recruiting class and how they became Buckeyes as they prepare to begin their OSU careers this fall.

A two-way athlete as a safety and wide receiver at Lakota West, Malik Hartford (No. 11 safety, No. 150 overall) was the third-ranked in-state prospect in the 2023 class. Along with all but one of Ohio’s other top eight prospects in the class, Hartford will play his college football for Ohio State after choosing to stay home.

Malik Hartford

  • Size: 6-2/183
  • Position: S
  • School: Lakota West (West Chester, Ohio)
  • 247 Composite: ★★★★
  • Composite Rank: #11 S
  • Overall Rank: #150

How He Became A Buckeye

When Perry Eliano – Hartford's lead recruiter – left Luke Fickell's staff at Cincinnati to join Ryan Day's coaching staff and lead Ohio State's safeties, it was very evident he wanted Hartford to eventually join him in his move from Cincinnati to Columbus. The Bearcats had already offered Hartford – his first Division I offer – and the Buckeyes did the same just over a week after Eliano came to the Buckeyes.

Three visits later, Ohio State quickly rose to the top of the list for Hartford due to its tradition and his longstanding relationship with Eliano. With that, the Lakota West product committed to the Buckeyes in early April, less than three months after Eliano joined Day's staff and Ohio State made Hartford a top target.

“The program in general,” Hartford told Eleven Warriors of why he chose to become a Buckeye. “The ability to play for championships, get developed, go to the NFL.”

He is the third player from Lakota West to choose the Buckeyes over the last two years, joining 2022 signees cornerback Jyaire Brown and offensive lineman Tegra Tshabola.

High School Years

Time and time again, Hartford made plays for Lakota West. Whether the Firebirds were on offense, defense or special teams, there was a good chance he either had the ball or was making a play for the ball. The 6-foot-2, 183-pounder was a hard-hitting and ball-hawking safety, a wide receiver and a standout on the kickoff coverage and field  goal block units.

As a junior, Hartford had 58 tackles, two interceptions, one sack and six blocked kicks while leading Lakota West to an 11-2 record and a regional final berth. He did most of that while playing with a torn labrum, an injury he suffered midway through the season.

During his senior season, the four-star safety led Lakota West on another deep run in the state playoffs. Hartford registered 43 tackles, two interceptions (one pick-six), four tackles for loss and five pass breakups in 2022.

He received plenty of accolades following his final high school season, including the Greater Miami Conference Defensive Player of the Year award and a co-Division I Ohio Defensive Player of the Year honor. He was one of three Ohio State commits in the 2023 class to be named an Ohio defensive player of the year, as Arvell Reese (Division IV) and Jermaine Mathews (Division II) also earned those honors. 

Throughout his time at Lakota West, Hartford gained plenty of experience in a three-safety system, the same defensive scheme that Jim Knowles likes to use at Ohio State.

Immediate Impact

To put it simply: Ohio State is loaded at safety this fall. In a room that includes Josh Proctor, Lathan Ransom, Ja'Had Carter, Sonny Styles, Cameron Martinez and Kourt Williams, among others, Hartford will have plenty of time to develop both his body and as a playmaker on the back end of the Buckeyes' defense.

Although he has plenty of talent and experience ahead of him on the depth chart, Hartford has already made a name for himself as one of just three early enrollees to lose his black stripe this spring. Given Hartford's familiarity and experience in a three-safety scheme along with his performance throughout the spring, the freshman will be ahead of the game in learning Knowles' system early on.

"Malik has come in and worked," Eliano said of Hartford in early April after the safety became the third freshman to lose his black stripe, joining Carnell Tate and Jelani Thurman. "You see the talent that you saw when he was at Lakota West. He's extremely smart and has a high football IQ. He's a very, very humble young man that has come in, and he's shown flashes of what he can be. He's still learning the game of football on the collegiate level, but I'll tell you what, I've been pleased with what I've seen."

Although he likely won't get any significant playing time on defense during his first season as a Buckeye, Hartford's proven ability to be a playmaker on special teams could lead to plenty of time there as a freshman.

“I take pride in every aspect of the game, so whatever will help my team win and help me get on the field, I'll definitely take advantage of,” Hartford told Eleven Warriors last April.

Long-Term Impact

While the Buckeyes have plenty of safeties this fall, 2024 could look quite different. With Proctor entering his final year of eligibility and Ransom a potential candidate to enter the 2024 NFL draft, Hartford could see his name on the two-deep if he takes advantage of all of his resources and continues to master Knowles' system, something that he has plenty of familiarity with already.

Given his experience and ability to line up as the deep safety, at the line of scrimmage or anywhere in between, Hartford could play any of the three safety positions in Knowles' offense. That said, Lakota West coach Tom Bolden believes Hartford's best position would be at free safety.

“He could do free, he could do strong, but yeah, he's more of a free safety,” Bolden told Eleven Warriors in April 2022. “I would think so because of how much ground he could cover. It's ridiculous.”

Pairing up Hartford and Styles at safety beginning in 2024 has the potential to be a very special tandem for the Silver Bullets.

Player Comparison: Malik Hooker

An instinctive, hard-hitting, ball-hawking and playmaking safety? The first name I instantly thought of was Hooker, who certainly made a name for himself in his lone season as a full-time starter. He finished with 74 tackles, 5.5 tackles for losses and seven interceptions (three pick-sixes) and four passes deflected in 2016. After just one season as the anchor of Ohio State's defense, Hooker was selected No. 15 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.

If Hartford can eventually become a similar safety and playmaker to what Hooker brought the Silver Bullets seven years ago, Ohio State has a special safety waiting for his opportunity.

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