Sonny Styles to Compete At High Safety Positions For Ohio State This Preseason: “I Think We’re Going to Need Him There”

By Griffin Strom on June 1, 2023 at 11:35 am
Sonny Styles

Ohio State’s vision for Sonny Styles appears to be evolving.

During the spring, safeties coach Perry Eliano said fans can expect to see the five-star defensive back recruit in more of a “streamlined position” in 2023, preferring Styles to be “great at specific things instead of OK at a lot of things.” And Eliano agreed with the sentiment that Styles’ role could be similar to how the Buckeyes used him in the Peach Bowl, essentially as an extra linebacker to match up with teams utilizing two-tight end sets.

“You won't see him in a lot of places,” Eliano said in April. “You'll see him pretty stationary in one to two spots.”

But that line of thinking seems to have changed. With the spring game nearly two months in the rearview mirror, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said Tuesday that Styles has proven he can take on more responsibilities than the Buckeye staff might have previously thought.

"I think he's a real versatile player. He's shown me a lot since he's been here, but he's ready to play.”– Jim Knowles on Sonny Styles

Styles took extensive reps as Ohio State’s second-team boundary safety behind Lathan Ransom this spring and even spent time as another option at the nickel safety spot. But Knowles said even free safety isn’t out of the question for the 6-foot-4, 222-pound sophomore.

“I learned that Sonny can handle a lot. He's more adept at playing in a high safety position than you would think for a bigger guy,” Knowles said at an interview session at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Tuesday. “Most of the time last year, we had him at the line of scrimmage or close to the line of scrimmage. So we've come up with a dual plan for him where he'll be able to compete at a high safety position, because I think we're going to need him there, but he'll have a package where certainly he's down close to the line of scrimmage and able to blitz and do some things in the run game and pass game for us.”

The Buckeyes don’t intend on entirely abandoning the plan Eliano hinted at for Styles earlier in the spring. Knowles’ “dual plan” figures to allow Styles to continue covering pass-catching threats at the tight end position, depending on the matchup, and it sounds like Ohio State also has designs on letting Styles rush the passer a bit in 2023 as well. As a freshman, Styles had just one tackle for loss and no sacks, but his frame suggests he could be a weapon in opposing backfields.

But it’s clear that Styles’ coverage skills deep in the Ohio State secondary held up well over the course of the Buckeyes’ 15 practices this spring. Asked directly if Styles could compete at both Ohio State’s adjuster and bandit positions moving forward, Knowles confirmed the notion. But Knowles sees him as a potential asset at all three safety spots.

“I think he will (compete at both free and strong safety), because we'll need it. And he's repped at all three,” Knowles said. “We like him in that nickel position, but of course when he's in there, it's almost like a strong safety. So you adapt what he does best to the defense and what I call when he's in there, if he's in at a nickel. But we tried to put him in some challenging positions, too, just to see how he would hold up with a lot of the things that a nickel has to do. And he did well. So I think really the sky's the limit with Sonny and we'll keep working and I'll keep working over the summer to really define the things that he does best.”

Eliano didn’t speak in quite as much detail about Styles’ role on Tuesday, but said the Buckeyes will find ways to get him on the field. Eliano is well aware of the high expectations and fan excitement surrounding Styles, who entered the program as the No. 12 overall prospect in the country last season, but also mentioned his age. After all, Styles reclassified to start his college career a year early.  

“We're going to find ways to get everybody on the field that's going to help us win championships, and Sonny's part of that matrix,” Eliano said. “I think everybody's got to understand, he's 18 years old. Obviously he reclassified, but Sonny has worked. I mean he's played on the biggest of stages to his young career and did well, so we're gonna find ways to get guys on the field. Guys that are playmakers, guys that have earned it each and every day, whether it be the spring, summer, and going into the fall.”

In order to secure a starting position at either the free safety or strong safety spot, though, Styles would have to supplant a longstanding Buckeye veteran. In the boundary, Lathan Ransom returns after a mostly excellent season in which he was a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist before a less-than-stellar end to the year. Josh Proctor, who saw his own starting job taken by Ransom early last season, is back for a sixth season of college football and dominated first-team reps at free safety during the spring.

Both Knowles and Eliano have had plenty of positive things to say about Proctor this offseason, but the latter made it clear that he isn’t a lock to open the year as a starter despite his veteran status.

“With Josh just being able to learn the system and really get into a groove of OK, this is what you're asked to do. And you just got to put good days on top of good days,” Eliano said. “And to this point, he's done that. And that's for everybody. Nobody's guaranteed a role as far as a starter. That's the beauty of competition, and that's what we pride ourselves on as a program here. We compete in everything we do.”

The thought process of giving Styles more to do in 2023 didn’t happen overnight. Knowles said it took the whole spring for Styles to prove himself on the field. But now that he has, the second-year defensive coordinator thinks Styles is ready for a big step up in opportunities, so long as he continues to excel during the preseason.

“I think it takes all spring to really put him in those positions where he's going to be challenged cover-wise and in some matchups. And he did well,” Knowles said. “So I think he's a real versatile player. He's shown me a lot since he's been here, but he's ready to play.”

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