An already-loaded Ohio State defense just got even better.
Ohio State’s 2024 defense was already projected to be the best in the country before Caleb Downs committed to the Buckeyes. Now that the Freshman All-American safety from Alabama is transferring to Ohio State, the Buckeyes’ 2024 defense has the potential to be otherworldly.
Before Friday night, the two biggest question marks that lingered for Ohio State’s 2024 defense were the free safety position and the Will linebacker position. Downs’ commitment could address both of those positions, as he will immediately plug in as a starting safety while his addition alongside Lathan Ransom frees up Sonny Styles to move closer to the line of scrimmage and play LB.
On paper, those should be the final two puzzle pieces to round out an 11-man starting lineup on defense that is full of experienced and talented players who are all capable of being among the best in the entire country at their respective positions.
A closer look at how that starting lineup should stack up this fall:
DE: Jack Sawyer, JT Tuimoloau
Sawyer and Tuimoloau were both projected as potential early-round picks if they entered the 2024 NFL draft. Instead, both decided to stay at Ohio State for their senior seasons, giving the Buckeyes a tandem of senior defensive ends that should be the best in the country if they can consistently play up to their potential.
While Tuimoloau and Sawyer haven’t yet had quite the careers they were expected to have when they signed with Ohio State as the No. 4 and No. 5 overall prospects in the 2021 class, both of them have shown they are capable of playing at an All-American level. Sawyer was dominant down the stretch of the 2023 season, recording 7.5 tackles for loss with 4.5 sacks in Ohio State’s final three games alone, while Tuimoloau made some of the biggest plays of Ohio State’s biggest wins of the year against Notre Dame and Penn State.
If both of them can put it all together and play at that level throughout the 2024 season, Ohio State’s edge rush will be fearsome.
DT: Tyleik Williams, Ty Hamilton
Williams was already one of the best defensive tackles in college football this past season, earning second-team All-American honors from the Walter Camp Football Foundation after a highly disruptive year in which he recorded 53 total tackles with 10 tackles for loss, three sacks and five pass breakups and recovered a fumble for a touchdown.
Like Sawyer and Tuimoloau, Williams could have been an early-round NFL draft pick but chose to stay at Ohio State for his senior season instead, giving OSU a standout trio of returning starters on the defensive line.
Hamilton started six games at nose tackle this past season and was a solid run stopper throughout the year. He quietly emerged as more of an impact player in the second half of the season, recording 22 total tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss in OSU’s final seven games of 2023. If Hamilton can build upon that, we could see him have a similar fifth-year senior season breakout as his older brother DaVon, who emerged as a major difference-maker on Ohio State’s interior defensive line in 2019 and ended up becoming a third-round 2020 NFL draft pick.
WLB: Sonny Styles
There’s been no confirmation as of yet that Styles will move to linebacker; defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was high on Styles’ future as a safety when he last met with the media before the Cotton Bowl, saying he thinks Styles “can be a dominant high safety.” Now that Downs is coming to Columbus, though, a move to Will linebacker is likely the best move for all parties.
Styles is too talented not to be a part of Ohio State’s defense in some capacity, but there’s no longer a starting spot available for him in the secondary. And given that Styles did his best work closer to the line of scrimmage this past season anyway, there’s reason to believe a move to linebacker could be ideal for the 6-foot-4, 230-pound rising junior.
While Styles struggled at times this past season when he had to match up with receivers in coverage, he has the skill set to be an elite coverage linebacker. He already has the requisite size to defend the run in the box while his athletic range should enable him to be a sideline-to-sideline playmaker from the Will spot.
If the Buckeyes decide it’s not in Styles’ best interest to make him a full-time linebacker, they have another five-star junior at the position in C.J. Hicks, giving them two intriguing options to replace Steele Chambers in the lineup.
MLB: Cody Simon
Even though he only started three games this past season, Simon was arguably Ohio State’s best linebacker by the end of the year. He made his presence felt when he was on the field, particularly as a run stopper, as he recorded 57 tackles in just 373 defensive snaps.
The defense didn’t miss a beat in the three games that Simon started in place of Tommy Eichenberg at Mike linebacker this past season, giving Knowles great reason to be confident in his ability to be the signal-caller for Ohio State’s defense this year. He might not be as flashy as most of the other players in Ohio State’s projected starting lineup, but the stability and consistency he should provide is exactly what the Buckeyes need at this position.
CB: Denzel Burke, Davison Igbinosun
Outside of adding Downs, there was no bigger coup for Ohio State’s 2024 defense than Burke’s decision to stay for his senior year. His lockdown coverage on the perimeter was the biggest reason why Ohio State led the entire nation in passing yards allowed per game this past season, and he’ll be a strong All-American candidate as a fourth-year starter next fall.
Burke pairs with Igbinosun to give Ohio State what could be the best cornerback tandem in the country. Igbinosun was a strong No. 2 cornerback in coverage while also making a big impact in run support in his first year as a Buckeye after transferring in from Ole Miss, and he should be even better in 2024 now that he’ll have a full year in Jim Knowles’ system under his belt.
Nickel: Jordan Hancock
Ohio State’s midseason switch to a three-cornerback lineup was another key factor in the success of the Buckeyes’ pass defense this past season. After taking over for Styles as the Buckeyes’ starting nickel, Hancock proved to be a perfect fit for the position as he provided excellent coverage as a slot cornerback while also proving to be more than adept as a run defender and blitzer.
With all three starting cornerbacks returning for another year, opponents should have an even harder time throwing the ball against Ohio State than they did in 2023, when OSU held its opponents to only five yards per passing attempt and 145.9 passing yards per game, both the best marks in the country.
FS: Caleb Downs
To say that Downs plugs a hole in Ohio State’s defensive lineup would be a massive understatement. The Buckeyes could have potentially been just fine at free safety with Malik Hartford and/or Ja’Had Carter, but Downs gives Ohio State a truly elite player at the position who can elevate the entire defense to another level.
Downs was already one of the best safeties in college football last season as a true freshman, earning second-team AP All-American honors while winning the Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year award as the nation’s best first-year player. Graded by Pro Football Focus as a top-10 safety in the nation, Downs was a star in both coverage and run support, racking up 107 total tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, four pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
As good as Downs was in his only season at Alabama, he should theoretically be even better now that he’s no longer a freshman and that he will be surrounded by the most talented defense in the country. The Buckeyes shouldn’t need him to make triple-digit tackles like he did for the Crimson Tide, but his elite all-around skill set will give the Buckeyes tremendous matchup flexibility on the back end.
SS: Lathan Ransom
The final piece of a secondary that truly should be the Best in America in 2024 (if it wasn’t already in 2023), Ransom pairs with Downs to give the Buckeyes an elite pairing of safeties in the back middle of their defense.
Ransom was rock-solid for the first two months of the 2023 season, giving the Buckeyes consistent play as both a tackler and a cover safety until he suffered a season-ending injury in the final game of October against Wisconsin. His presence was missed in both the run and pass game late in the season when he was sidelined.
While Ohio State would have potentially had to consider moving Ransom to free safety if it didn’t add a FS through the portal, the addition of Downs allows Ransom to stay in his natural position. That said, both of them offer plenty of interchangeability as linchpins patrolling the middle of the field.