Ohio State Safety Josh Proctor Reflects On Sixth-Year "Awakening," Ups and Downs of Collegiate Career

By Andy Anders on December 29, 2023 at 12:00 pm
Josh Proctor

“Awakening” is the word Josh Proctor used to sum up his six-year career at Ohio State.

It’s a fitting one.

Despite a top-100 ranking in the 247Sports composite and brief flashes in his early seasons, for five years, Proctor’s career lay sleeping. Through injuries, benchings and off-the-field hardships that are unknown, he stuck with it at Ohio State until a sixth-year breakout season.

“Just an awakening,” Proctor said. “Finding yourself and just growing, maturing over the whole process.”

In an age of player movement that sees fewer and fewer stories like Proctor’s, there’s a certain inspiration his coaches believe others can take from his journey. Whatever the case, it’s an incredible ride to look back on.

“It says, hopefully, to future players, to stick it out. To not jump ship when times get tough. Don’t give up. Have a belief in yourself and in the coaches and in the development process,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “He’s a great story, where he came from, where he is now, things that he’s had to deal with in his life that a lot of people don’t know. He’s just – he’s overcome a lot, so I think everybody can look at that guy and say, ‘If I stick to the plan and I trust the coaches, I’m going to eventually succeed.’”

The play that built much of Proctor’s early hype with Ohio State fans is still the one he called his favorite – mainly due to the stage and what the team was achieving – when reflecting on his time in Columbus.

Proctor entered on the last series of the Buckeyes’ 2019 Big Ten Championship victory over Wisconsin as Ohio State led 34-21 following a second-half comeback. The Badgers faced a second-and-goal with less than five seconds to play.

Quarterback Jack Coan took a snap and scrambled to his right, time expiring as he did so. He weaved his way inside the 5-yard line before Proctor delivered a monstrous hit that stopped him 3 yards short of the end zone to close out Ohio State’s win.

The reviews from teammates at camp in Proctor’s first few seasons, at that time filling mostly a slot coverage role, were pretty rave. Before that 2019 season, then-Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah said that Proctor had “like eight interceptions” in fall camp.

“Josh has always been a guy with a lot of talent,” Knowles said. “He had his struggles in my first year (in 2022). But he was a guy you were just waiting for him to break out, and the light bulb has really gone on for him. He’s become a premier safety. He could always hit and run, and now he’s deciphering offenses and understanding our packages, which just allows him to utilize his skills and make more plays.”

Proctor earned the starting safety position for Ohio State in 2020, but results were mixed during the COVID-19-shortened year. He picked up 16 tackles with an interception and three pass breakups in seven games, but the Buckeyes’ passing defense as a whole proved the bane of its existence, ranking 122nd of 128 teams in the FBS that year.

It especially came back to bite them in that year’s National Championship Game against Alabama, who racked up 464 yards through the air in a 52-24 beatdown of the Buckeyes.

The start of 2021 was much different for Proctor, however. He was all over the field in Week 1 against Minnesota, collecting seven tackles. He got off to another strong start against Oregon the next week, but then the worst happened.

Proctor broke his leg in the third quarter and missed the rest of the season. It was a compound fracture, meaning the bone was sticking out of his skin. What looked to be a breakout year was put to a screeching halt.

“The injuries are well-documented, but he stuck with it, and he’s resilient and stronger for it,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “Not only is he going to have a great NFL career, but he’s going to be a great husband someday, a great dad. And I know he wants to play his best football and finish this thing the right way tomorrow night.”

When Knowles arrived to take over Ohio State’s defense in 2022, Proctor got another opportunity to be the team’s starting boundary safety.

On the season’s first series against Notre Dame, Proctor missed a tackle that yielded a big play and was benched in favor of Lathan Ransom. Ransom took over the job on a permanent basis thereafter, as Proctor played sparingly the rest of the year.

In the modern era of the transfer portal, there was almost an expectation that Proctor would transfer after Ransom’s usurpation.

Proctor admitted that his decision to stick it out was “harder than you would think.” But, in the end, he felt he couldn’t leave Ohio State with his career ending the way it would have had he left.

“My biggest thing was that I didn’t feel like I went out how I wanted to,” Proctor said. “Feel like there was a lot left out there that I needed to do. A lot I needed to prove to not (just) others but also myself.”

Those are just the struggles Proctor faced on the field. Hardships were also happening off it that have not been made public.

“There’s been a lot of ups, a lot of downs,” Proctor said. “I’m not one of those people that likes to talk about a lot of (personal) things. That’s one of my biggest problems. I like to hold stuff in, and sometimes it boils over, and that’s when you look back at what you learned from past examples and just learn.”

“Not only is he going to have a great NFL career but he’s going to be a great husband someday, a great dad.”– Ryan Day on Josh Proctor

Now, staying the course at Ohio State is one thing, but it was now or never for Proctor’s final year of eligibility in 2023.

He moved back to free safety in the spring and fended off Syracuse transfer Ja’Had Carter and surging freshman Malik Hartford to win the starting job.

Despite some bumps and bruises along the way, Proctor collected at least four tackles in seven of the 10 games he played for Ohio State. He had a career day against Maryland on Oct. 7, picking up seven tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss and a 24-yard pick-six.

He also broke up a red zone passing attempt with one of his signature big hits at Rutgers that was intercepted and returned 93 yards for a touchdown by Jordan Hancock, though Proctor was injured on the play and missed the following week’s Michigan State game.

On the season, Proctor finished with 41 tackles, four tackles for loss, eight pass breakups and one interception he returned for a touchdown.

“Resilience, perseverance,” Day said of Proctor’s story. “We have our senior tackle and Josh, he got up in front of the team and shared some things that were private. But he just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Now you’re seeing him play his best football. Always believed that Josh was one of the most talented guys coming out of high school and now he’s put it all together.”

Proctor was also perhaps the team’s most expressive player, the first one to pump up the Ohio Stadium crowd before a big defensive play.

All the tribulations he went through made him more appreciative of those moments.

“It definitely did. It definitely did,” Proctor said. “It brought that character out of me this year. Like, I’ve always been an energetic player but there’s just a different chip on my shoulder this year I feel like I have to play with.”

The Cotton Bowl is an appropriate place for the Oklahoma native to close his collegiate career. He stated that he has 22 family members and friends who plan to attend.

“I’m really excited. Half of Tulsa is gonna be there.”

He feels closure on his Buckeye tenure, even if it might be tough to say goodbye.

“It’s honestly kind of bittersweet,” Proctor said. “It feels good, but at the same time, it’s sad just knowing you’re leaving this behind, all of these memories and everything you’ve been through.”

“It brought that character out of me this year. Like, I’ve always been an energetic player but there’s just a different chip on my shoulder this year.”– Josh Proctor

The next step for Proctor is to prepare for the NFL. There’s a chance he gets drafted, especially with a strong performance against Missouri, but even if he has to settle for being an undrafted free agent, he’ll look to find the field somewhere.

He feels the key will be to continue the personal growth he’s made over the last few years.

“Just mature,” Proctor said. “Continue to learn myself. There’s always areas we can better ourselves in. Ultimately it’s all God’s timing. So as long as I do my work, it’ll all come into place.”

Regardless of how things play out at the next level, Proctor’s Ohio State story is one of the more inspirational you’ll find around college football.

It’s truly been an awakening. 

“There’s been some times where I thought about doing things different, ‘What if I would have done this?’ But honestly, being here now, I wouldn’t trade anything. It’s all made me the person I am today,” Proctor said.

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