James Laurinaitis Likens Sonny Styles to Former Clemson Star Isaiah Simmons As Coaches Continue Working to Find Styles' Best Defensive Fit

By Andy Anders on February 21, 2024 at 8:35 am
Sonny Styles

Matt Guerrieri and James Laurinaitis are the two newest assistants on Ohio State’s defensive coaching staff.

They also happen to coach the two position groups that are pulling for the services of perhaps the most interesting cog in Ohio State’s 2024 defensive machine – Sonny Styles.

“He’s a unique combination of ability to run, cover, tackle, mentality, size, he’s got a lot of things and attributes from there,” Guerrieri said. “Without getting into specifics, we’re going to take a look at a number of different things for him and put him in the best position for him to be successful and the team to be successful.”

Styles played safety all of last season for the Buckeyes. He slotted in as a nickel to start the year in a rotation with Jordan Hancock – Styles mostly played in heavier formations to put another physical defender in the box – then slid back to strong safety after Lathan Ransom’s season-ending injury.

That voyage to deep safety provided mixed results for the five-star prospect, which is why one of the top storylines for Ohio State’s defense ahead of spring practice is whether Styles will be a safety, linebacker or some combination of the two in 2024.

“I think that’s a question, probably, above me,” Laurinaitis said. “I think Sonny has such a rare skill set in the sense that – you saw it a little bit – he would play kind of the overhang last year and you don’t really know what he was. Is this a safety? Or is this more of an outside ’backer? Is he an old-school Sam? He’s just so versatile.”

Styles collected 53 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2023, adding one pass breakup in his sophomore season. He graduated high school a year early to enroll at Ohio State ahead of the 2022 season, and during what should have been winter break during his senior year of high school, he saw meaningful action against Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinals as a freshman.

“It starts with a dynamic playmaker,” Guerrieri said. “You guys have been able to see that on plenty of Saturdays here, from the time that he first came in here, he had a starting role in that Georgia game his first year. So Sonny is dynamic in what he can do.”

Perhaps the best use of Styles’ talents could be something a little more inventive. He’s got a bit more range and speed to him than a typical linebacker, but he’s built bigger than a typical safety at 6-4, 230. Laurinaitis likened him to former Clemson linebacker and top-10 NFL draft pick Isaiah Simmons.

“I think that there’s a lot of different roles that we can put Sonny in to bring out the best in him,” Laurinaitis said. “I think with his body, size, his age, when you try to project him forward, he’s kind of in that Isaiah Simmons mix where you’re like, ‘What really is he? Is he a safety?’ He’s just a weapon. So I think that’s something that we have to evaluate this spring, where to put him to not only best suit what we want to do as Silver Bullets but also what’s best for his future.”

Should he find a sticking point at either linebacker or safety, both coaches seem comfortable with the depth pieces they have otherwise to where the rooms wouldn’t be hurt so much. Laurinaitis is looking for a big spring from C.J. Hicks, Gabe Powers and Arvell Reese as they compete to start at Will and play alongside Mike linebacker Cody Simon if Styles stays at safety.

If Styles does become a full-time linebacker, Guerrieri can pencil in Lathan Ransom and Caleb Downs as his starters back deep with Jordan Hancock playing nickel. Malik Hartford and Ja’Had Carter will be among the depth pieces there, and Downs has the versatility to rotate throughout the defensive backfield.

“I’ve been impressed with the depth across the board,” Guerrieri said. “There’s guys that have played big roles. Obviously Caleb wasn’t here, but is here (now). You’ve got Malik Hartford who started in games as a true freshman. There’s great depth, I think, across positions as the defense. It’s our job as recruiters to be able to build that. ... Really excited about the playmaking ability of a number of guys on the defense.”

Guerrieri, Laurinaitis and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles will all be evaluating the best use of Styles’ talents when spring practice starts on March 5.

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