Sonny Styles Making Smooth Transition from Safety to Linebacker Entering Third Year at Ohio State

By Dan Hope on May 30, 2024 at 11:39 am
Sonny Styles

Sonny Styles was already thinking about making the move to linebacker before last season ended.

Even though he started all but one game at either nickel safety or strong safety for Ohio State in 2023, Styles had a feeling a move to linebacker could be in his future this year, so he began learning how to play the position on his own.

Once Ohio State filled out its starting secondary for 2024 by adding Alabama transfer safety Caleb Downs, Styles knew it was time for him to make the move down from the third level to the second level of the defense.

“There was already a little talk about playing some linebacker before the (2023) season even ended,” Styles said this spring. “I was already kind of like, wasn't really learning it, like no one was teaching me, but I was getting to know linebacker a little bit just because I knew I probably would play linebacker at some point. So then, when Downs came here, it's like, ‘All right, so where can I help the defense the most?’”

While Styles played safety in high school and for his first two years at Ohio State, there was always a school of thought that he could end up at linebacker long-term. Even though he was still playing safety, the 6-foot-4 then-sophomore was already built like a linebacker last year, playing the entire season at 230-235 pounds.

“We've always joked about it because he's heavier than half the linebackers in the room,” linebacker Cody Simon said this spring.

Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said starting Styles out at safety was all part of his long-term developmental plan for the five-star recruit. While Knowles knew there was always a possibility Styles would end up at linebacker by the end of his Ohio State career, he thought playing safety first would make Styles a better player in the long run.

“When I first met him or when I first got here, I think everybody talked about ‘He’s gonna be a linebacker, he’s gonna be a linebacker.’ But I really wanted to see him at safety first,” Knowles said in March. “That’s what he wanted to do. That’s what I wanted to see. I felt long-term in my vision for him that playing safety early in his career was gonna give him a better perspective of the defense.

“I had Malcolm Rodriguez, who (now plays for the Detroit) Lions, at Oklahoma State. Now he’s about half of Sonny’s size, but he started as a safety. And when he became a linebacker, he understood things a lot better. So my vision for Sonny was to start him out at safety and then eventually move him down.”

Playing safety last season gave Styles a clearer path to the field, as he began the year as Ohio State’s starting nickel safety before moving to strong safety when Lathan Ransom went down with a season-ending injury. Moving to linebacker gives Styles a clearer path to the field this season, however. Ransom returned for a fifth year to start at strong safety while Jordan Hancock proved to be a coverage upgrade over Styles at nickel, but the Buckeyes will have two new starting linebackers this season with Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers now in the NFL.

As such, it made sense for Styles to make the move from safety to linebacker now, though Knowles says it’s not a change the Buckeyes would have made if they weren’t confident it was the right move for Styles.

“Any time you make a move, you want it to be right for the player and for the defense and the team, and I think that fit up naturally,” Knowles said. “Sonny had to fight to stay lean as a DB, and now he gets to eat. But I think it worked out for both of us.”

So far, Styles has taken to the position switch just as Knowles and linebackers coach James Laurinaitis hoped he would.

“I think Sonny's made a really smooth transition to linebacker,” Laurinaitis said in April. “He's so used to breaking and going from safety, you had to slow him down. He's so explosive. And so he's really gotten his footwork under control. It's a never-ending process. But for a guy that played – and look, I think playing at safety, seeing the game from that perspective now moving up, he has a good idea of the whole scheme and how everything kind of works together. So it's been a really smooth transition for Sonny.”

Styles says the most challenging part of the transition has been learning how to play with less time and space now that he’s lining up closer to the line of scrimmage. But he’s excited about the opportunity to be around the ball more consistently.

“At safety, sometimes you're just back there, the play never gets to you. You take two backpedals and it's a tackle,” Styles said. “So I think, yeah, at linebacker, you're in the play more. More opportunities to make tackles.”

As Knowles had hoped, Styles feels he has a greater understanding of how the entire defense operates from his experience playing safety now that he’s playing linebacker.

“I think at safety, I kind of already knew what the linebackers were doing, so now what I'm really starting to learn is exactly every little detail of what the D-line's doing,” Styles said. “I didn't know every little aspect of it, I think I'm starting to learn that now, because obviously at linebacker, you've got to be knowing that more. So I think when it's all said and done, I think I’m going to have a really, really, really good understanding of the defense and knowing exactly what everyone's doing.”

“It's been a really smooth transition for Sonny.”– James Laurinaitis on Sonny Styles’ move from safety to linebacker

With his first spring as a linebacker now behind him, Styles feels comfortable in his new position, though he’ll be continuing to work this summer on honing his footwork in his new role.

“I feel comfortable there. It’s good I don’t have to cover those little 5-8, 4.3 (40-yard dash time) receivers no more. But I feel like the position fits my abilities well,” Styles said Thursday during an interview on 97.1 The Fan. “It feels pretty natural. I think the biggest thing, which I think all linebackers deal with, is just a footwork thing. Not trying to false step. You’re so close to the box, you can’t waste steps, so that’s been an adjustment to me. It feels pretty natural, though.”

With every other starting spot on the defense seemingly accounted for, Styles is competing with C.J. Hicks to be the starting Will linebacker alongside Simon at Mike linebacker. Styles’ history as a starter last season doesn’t guarantee he’ll be a starter this year, as Hicks took many of the first-team reps at Will this spring, but it’s a safe bet Styles will have a role in the defense one way or another. Regardless of who starts, Styles is likely to play Sam linebacker in three-linebacker packages, and Knowles plans to take advantage of Styles’ background playing safety to add more multiplicity to the defensive scheme.

Styles has already shown in his two years as a safety that he can be an impactful playmaker for Ohio State’s defense, giving the Buckeyes good reason to believe he can be a standout linebacker with how he has acclimated to his new position so far.

“He can play any position he wants,” Simon said. “He's that dynamic as a player. And really my job is physically just to keep up with him because he's the most athletic on the field. And he's a super talented player and he works really hard, too, so it goes really well together.”

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