Quick Hits: James Laurinaitis Says Sonny Styles Has Made a “Smooth Transition” to LB, Caleb Downs Calls Ohio State “The Place to Be” and Quinshon Judkins Is Excited to Work With Carlos Locklyn

By Chase Brown, Dan Hope, Garrick Hodge and Andy Anders on April 3, 2024 at 2:56 pm
Caleb Downs

Ohio State is where it’s at.

That's what Caleb Downs said on Wednesday.

“This is the place to be,” he said. “I'm glad to be here.”

Downs’ statement came after the Buckeyes’ 10th spring practice. The Alabama safety transfer held a press conference on the Woody Hayes Athletic Center indoor practice field, where Ohio State linebackers coach James Laurinaitis, safeties coach Matt Guerrieri, running backs Quinshon Judkins, Dallan Hayden and TC Caffey, offensive lineman Josh Simmons and defensive end Mitchell Melton also answered questions from reporters.

Among the many topics discussed, Laurinaitis said Sonny Styles has made a “smooth transition” from safety to linebacker this spring, Guerrieri called Ohio State's defensive backfield “highly competitive” and Judkins shared how “awesome” it is that Carlos Locklyn is the Buckeyes’ new running backs coach.

Below are videos and bullet-point recaps from each interview.

James Laurinaitis

  • On his first spring as Ohio State’s linebackers coach: “It’s been good. There are some positives. I think Coach (Chip) Kelly has given us a lot of interesting looks that we can coach off of, which is good. … I think it’s been going well. Guys are growing every day. A veteran like Cody Simon helps set the pace for the room with the way he prepares and how good he is with attention to detail. I think it’s been a good start.”
  • On Sonny Styles: “I think Sonny has made a really smooth transition to linebacker. In the early days you had to work on, and Luke Fickell used to say this to us all the time, he would say, ‘Be slow until it’s time to be fast in the box.’ What that means is, you have to have calm feet. He’s so used to breaking and going from safety, you have to slow him down. He’s so explosive. He’s really gotten his footwork under control, but it’s a never-ending process. … It’s been a really smooth transition for Sonny.”
  • On C.J. Hicks: “I think C.J. Hicks has done a phenomenal job. You have to keep pressing him and making sure he’s really tapping into everything he can offer. I think C.J. sees the opportunity. He’s certainly making a case to get on the field this fall. I think it’s been a really good spring for C.J. … Whenever you have a good day, you got to follow it up with another good day. That’s what a pro does. … He’s had some really good days, and he’s had some days where you have to push him a little bit. I think C.J. with where he is now compared to where was last fall, he’s a lot better football player.”
  • As of now, Laurinaitis said there are five linebackers he would feel confident putting on the field this season. He wants the position room to be in “constant competition” in the spring, summer and fall. Laurinaitis said “who starts should be week to week” with reps determined by how practice goes for each player.
  • On his desire for competition in the linebacker room: “I always felt when I was here that they were trying to out-recruit me, which is the reality. That’s why Ohio State prepares you so well for the National Football League because now it’s like they’re trying to out-draft you. I used that as fuel.”
  • Laurinaitis continued to discuss his hopes for a competitive linebacker room in 2024: “But I also saw (competition) first-hand. There was a season where there was John Kerr, Marcus Freeman and certain guys rotating week to week. So I saw, like, ‘Shoot, if it can happen to them, it can happen to me.’ … I tell the guys all the time, ‘You have to control the things that take no talent. You have to eliminate all loafs.’ If you loaf on the field, you’re a traitor and you should just go play for the other team. We can’t be coaching effort, and then you can’t have mental errors. If you have a mental error, then I can’t trust you. Those were the two things as a player that I was like alright, ‘You’re not gonna catch me loafing and you’re definitely not gonna catch me not knowing what I’m supposed to do. I might get beat, but that’s inevitable. That’s football. Everybody is on scholarship. But those two things you can control every single day.”
  • When asked about Styles a second time, Laurinaitis said the safety-turned-linebacker has “made great progress” at his new position. “I’m really happy with how Sonny has done.”
  • On his recruiting pitch to Ohio State linebacker recruits: “Ohio State presents opportunity in so many different ways. You’re not gonna get developed better anywhere else in the country. We have the largest fanbase, the largest alumni. I mean, there’s just opportunity everywhere. You just try to explain your passion for the school that did so much for you, especially being an out-of-state kid and not being from Ohio, realizing how much Ohio State changed my life. Now, you communicate that to other young kids who can see it. You try to tell them the vision of where you can get to. The fun thing for me is that most of the kids I’m recruiting are way more athletic than I ever was, so I tell them the only way I survived in the NFL for eight years is the fact that I had football intelligence. … If I can impart that information on kids that are super athleticism, well know you got something special.”
  • As Ohio State prepares for a long season with the 12-team College Football Playoff, Laurinaitis said “depth is crucial at all of our positions.” Laurinaitis said “you can’t be naive to think you’re gonna have every single starter healthy for the whole season.”
  • On Arvell Reese: “Arvell has shown a lot of progress, most importantly mentally with the playbook. Last year, because of injuries on the D-line in camp he moved to end for a little bit. Then, we brought him off the ball. Then, he had an injury and missed some time. … He wasn’t a midyear, and he came in during the summer, so he missed some reps there. To see where he’s at now is extremely impressive. For a guy with that much size, that much power and his ability to run, he’s a special athlete. Arvell has had a good spring.”
  • Laurinaitis said Reese will need to continue to develop mentally this offseason. If he can combine football IQ with his athleticism, Laurinaitis said Reese’s potential is through the roof. “Athletically, he is one of the most gifted guys in the room.”
  • “I think one of the things that is helpful is my playing experience. When you’ve played and you’ve done it, the drills you’re doing, you know that they work. You’re not gonna waste time on stuff that doesn’t work. And then the fact that I’m blessed to be at my alma mater, so there’s no sense of trying to leave here. That’s a question I get a ton is, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ I’m like, ‘Where I’m sitting.’ It’s my alma mater. My kids love it in Columbus. I love Ohio State. I think those are things that can be an advantage.”

Matt Guerrieri

  • On coaching OSU’s safeties: “It’s been great, it’s been highly competitive. I would say even the film room is highly competitive, the field work is highly competitive. We’ve got a good mix of veterans and young guys. We talk about expectations being constantly on the rise. That’s what we’ve been able to do so far.”
  • On Caleb Downs: “He’s a special player. First of all, he puts the work in. Talent is a god-given thing, but the discipline and skill you develop in your life, he’s been able to do that. He’s the same every day from a mentality and work ethic standpoint. He’s probably in the film room more than anyone on the entire defense. He’s done a good job of pushing the envelope with other guys to make sure the standard is that way.”
  • On Malik Hartford’s injury and the opportunity that can create for the younger players: “It’s great for your guys to get that opportunity and it’s on those guys to maximize their opportunity and it’s on me to have them ready for it. I think it’s been a good mix of that. From a preparation standpoint, we’ve dealt with this too when Lathan was out and missed a spring two years ago. It’s a lot of mental work and work in the film room to be prepared to compete within in the white lines. You have to be ready to go.”
  • On Jayden Bonsu: “He’s been a guy that’s been on the rise. From when he started practice, he’s made more plays at practice, his eye discipline is better and his understanding of the defense is better which allows you to play free and play fast.
  • On Jaylen McClain: “He’s been great. We do a thing where we track how well you run to the ball every practice, it’s one of the things we grade. You can talk about all the schematics that you want, but if you’re not running to the ball, you’re not playing good defense. He’s one of the guys that’s one of our highest-graded guys at running to the ball. So he’s been awesome from an effort standpoint, and attitude, he’s in early. I’m excited about him for sure.”

S Caleb Downs

  • On how he’s acclimating to Ohio State: “It feels like this is the place to be. I'm glad to be here. My family’s been up here. I’m feeling good.”
  • On adjusting to new teammates and coaches: “It’s always new just to be around different people, people that you haven’t spent time with. Building relationships is a big thing for me, so just trying to grow my relationships with my teammates and trying to learn more about each of them.”
  • Downs is renowned for his preparation off the field, a work ethic he said his father built in him. “Ever since I was a kid, my dad always instilled in me and my brother to work hard and just be around football. Be around what we want to be good at. After (interviews) I’ll go watch more film, do a little schoolwork, then later tonight I’ll probably come back and watch some film again.”
  • Downs watches a lot of different styles of football and styles of safety in his film sessions. Jevon Holland (Miami) and Antoine Winfield Jr. (Tampa Bay) are among his favorites to observe.
  • A lot of what Downs is doing at Ohio State is “the same” as it was at Alabama, but there are “little differences” in the Buckeyes’ defense.
  • On Columbus: “I love the city. I love High Street, I love being in the city. I love the restaurants here, the food is great here.”
  • On rumors that he may enter the transfer portal again after his former teammate Kadyn Proctor returned to Alabama after transferring to Iowa this spring: “I didn’t feel like I needed to say anything, because at the end of the day, I’m still here at practice. I’m still here with my teammates. I feel my actions speak for themselves. ... I support him. But I’m here.”
  • On how he can build off his breakout freshman campaign: “Just being better in coverage, being better in the post, being better in my tackling, being a better communicator with my teammates. All that I think I can offer to the team, but at the end of the day, it’s gotta be a team collective.”
  • Downs believes Ohio State’s defense last year was “very elite” and he’s excited to be part of the group. “I can only do my part. I can only do my 1/11th, and do my job every play I can. I can’t try to do more than that, and every other player has to do his job and we’ll do what we need to do.”
  • Count Downs among those with high praise for Jeremiah Smith, who he expects to have a “big impact” this year. He said Emeka Egbuka and Carnell Tate have also looked great this spring.
  • On how much he’s been rolling between safety spots: “Every day I take reps at all three spots. It helps you understand and learn the defense from a new perspective. Being able to see the ball from the boundary safety, see the ball from the nickel spot,  being able to see the ball from the dime. It helps you be able to see the whole game and understand everything that goes on around you.”

RB Quinshon Judkins

  • Judkins said he already had a previous relationship with new Ohio State running backs coach Carlos Locklyn because Locklyn recruited Judkins when he was coaching at Florida State.
  • Judkins said his first practice with Locklyn on Wednesday went well. “It’s been awesome to see him.”
  • On the running backs being updated by Ryan Day during the process of hiring a new coach: “Throughout that whole process they kept us updated on what we were looking for and asking us what we were looking for as far as the room goes. He also was telling us what he wanted for us and we just kept getting updated about it.”
  • Judkins said Locklyn “didn’t talk too much” on his first day but gave them tips and things for the running backs to work on. “I think he’s been great so far.”
  • On Tony Alford leaving: “Just with the situation of college football where it is today, I understand coach Alford had to do what was best for him. But I’m here at Ohio State not only just for everything around it but I’m here for the university itself. So I’m just focusing on the bigger picture and the brotherhood that’s here, that’s what’s important to me.”
  • Judkins says he was surprised Alford left, even though he was about a week into his OSU playing career when it happened.
  • Judkins said his goal for this spring is to help where he can in OSU’s offense and improve all areas of his game.

RB Dallan Hayden

  • On new running backs coach Carlos Locklyn: “I feel like he’s a great coach. I’ve actually known him for a minute. He used to coach in the Memphis area for a while. So he’s a really good ball coach. Really good guy.”
  • On Tony Alford’s departure for Michigan: “It was tough. Coach Alford was a big part of why I came to Ohio State. So to see him leave was sad. But you know, he has a family to take care of. So I completely understood.”
  • Hayden said he is “very confident” he can earn a bigger role for the Buckeyes this season. He said he had to improve on his pass protection and pass catching, and he’s spent all offseason working to improve in those areas.
  • Hayden said redshirting last season was a “mutual agreement” between him and Ohio State. “Obviously I wanted to be on the field, because freshman year I played and then got redshirted, so it was tough. But everything happens for a reason.
  • On TreVeyon Henderson’s leadership this spring: “He’s being way more vocal and taking the younger guys under his wing. So yeah, he’s been a really good leader.”
  • Hayden said it’s been great having Chip Kelly as offensive coordinator. “He’s an offensive guru, so it’s been really good. I feel like he’s gonna make the offense better, for sure.
  • On walk-on running back TC Caffey: “TC’s a really good player, man. Very detailed. Very tough. He’s a good ballplayer.”
  • On the importance of having a quarterback who can run: “If you don’t have a quarterback that can run, the defense knows that, so they’ll just key in on the back.”
  • On the growth of the offensive line: “They’re doing really good. I feel like we got a group of older guys, veterans, so they’re gonna be really good.”
  • Hayden believes his best attribute is how he runs downhill at full speed. He believes his running style is different from Ohio State’s other running backs, allowing him to complement Henderson, Quinshon Judkins and the other backs well.

RB TC Caffey

  • Caffey said “it means a lot” that Ryan Day complimented him publicly after Saturday’s Student Appreciation Day practice. “We got this saying in the running back room that’s ‘Keep stacking days.’ And that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
  • Caffey says he thinks his physicality and effort are two of his best qualities.
  • On his touchdown run against Toledo in 2022: “It was a real good moment for me, man. It was something that I’ll remember for my life. It was a big dream of mine to come here and play in the first place, and to score a touchdown in the Shoe is just something that me and my family is gonna remember for a long time.”
  • Caffey said he tore his ACL later that season. “It was a tough recovery, but at the end, I feel great now and I’m ready to play again.”
  • What he likes about new running backs coach Carlos Locklyn: “He just takes people aside, tells them exactly what they need to do right then, right there. You can tell he’s a real straightforward guy. But he still loves his players and loves to be a coach.”

OT Josh Simmons

  • Simmons said “toward the back end” of last season he “started to figure it out a little bit” at the left tackle position. Simmons believes he had his best performances in Ohio State’s final four or five games.
  • On the challenge of playing for San Diego State and then Ohio State: “People love Ohio State. This is the best program in the country. ... I took it as (a challenge). I was like, 'Josh, you gotta lock in and figure it out.' That's what I would do throughout the season. I realized that these are brothers and these aren't teammates. I started to dial in. I started to hone in on my craft.”
  • Simmons said he took steps in his mental approach toward the game last season. After starting the year off with a lot of penalties, he shored up toward the middle and end of the season. “Those Notre Dame games and those Penn State games, you realize that (penalties) can destroy the whole game. Once you kind of look at it through that lens, you realize that's a no-no. They can't happen.”
  • On his performance last season: “I don't try to look back, but I try to look forward and keep climbing up the ladder. I looked at some tape from the past and from the near past, and it gives me the sense that I'm going in the right direction.”
  • Simmons said he is thankful to have spring practice with his teammates this year. He said chemistry is an important piece to playing offensive line, and now he has that with Donovan Jackson, who will start for the Buckeyes at left guard again this season.

DE Mitchell Melton

  • After so many injury roadblocks in his career, last year felt like a new start for Melton. “Last year was like my freshman year, kind of, just getting my feet under myself, figuring out how to play college football again. Now I feel more renewed than ever.”
  • On working through his injuries: “It was never easy. My support group, my family and my friends helped keep me motivated to keep my mind at bay with everything. ... Me being blessed to be in the moment has always kept my mental really well.”
  • Melton was a standout at Ohio State’s Student Appreciation Day practice, something that’s a broader trend this spring, he feels. “I think for the majority of the spring I’ve been feeling more confident in myself and my abilities. Even with what’s happened in the past, I think I have a lot to give and a lot to give to this program.”
  • Melton came into Ohio State as a linebacker, but now he feels “at home” at defensive end. “These past two years there’s definitely been a learning curve, but I think now more than ever I’m definitely comfortable in where I’m at and what I need to do.”
  • With the amount of experience depth they have on hand, Melton wants the defensive end group to be leaders. “We need to be the anchor for this defensive unit.”
  • On the impact he thinks he can have this year: “I’m just trying to go day by day. It’s hard. That’s where I’ve found myself is always going to the future and thinking about what I’m gonna do this day or the next day, next day and next day. But it’s so overwhelming that it gave me stress. So I think for me it’s just worrying about tomorrow, the next practice.”
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