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Why Malik Hooker and the safeties are the most important players for Ohio State next season

Safety is the most important position battle for next season.

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

With the numerous deadly interpretations of spread and Air Raid offenses in modern college football, the free safety has become one of the most prized positions. It's so valuable in fact, that it's often where defenses will send their most experienced and/or most athletic members of the secondary. According to Ian Boyd:

It's interesting that we haven't seen more teams, especially in the Big 12 where safeties are regularly abused, opt to move their better DBs to the FS position. Ideally this position would be held by a veteran DB who has excellent range, understands offensive concepts, and is a willing and reliable tackler. For many teams, filling that role would likely require moving one of the better, more well rounded, and intelligent corners inside.

Ohio State doesn't differentiate between free and strong safeties on their depth chart. But with both Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell leaving early for the NFL, the Buckeyes will have two new, relatively inexperienced starters at the most valuable position on the defense.

It's not much hyperbole to say that the play of the secondary -- and the safeties in particular -- may decide the fate of the entire 2016 season. The Buckeyes open with three-straight offenses from the Air Raid school -- Bowling Green, Tulsa, and Oklahoma (not to mention at least Indiana and Penn State later on in conference play). These teams ranked eleventh, 51st, and seventh respectively in offensive S&P+ last season. So the two new starting safeties will be thrown directly in to the fire to start the season.

Redshirt sophomore Malik Hooker looks like the early leader of the safeties. Hooker seems to be one of the diamond-in-the-rough former three-star recruits that the Buckeyes have uncovered in the past -- similar to Darron Lee in that he was truly just a high-ceilinged athlete without a position when he first got to Ohio State. Hooker didn't start playing football until his junior year of high school and projected as either a safety or a wide receiver, but could have been buried behind higher-rated defensive back classmates Erick Smith and Dame Webb. If his two-interception spring game performance is any indication, that won't be the case.

Here's the lineup of potential two-deep contributors at safety and nickel:

Player Year 247 Comp Rating
Cam Burrows Sr .9719
Damon Webb Jr .982
Erick Smith Jr .9665
Malik Hooker So .8858
Eric Glover-Williams Jr .9523
Jordan Fuller Fr .9377

Averaging it out, the group as a whole has a .9494 247 Composite rating. If you take out Hooker's three-star rating, the group is bumped to .9621.

The current reports suggest Hooker and Damon Webb are the front-runners, but several guys, including Cam Burrows and Erick Smith, were both injured during spring practice. Eric Glover-Williams shared starting time this spring with Malik Hooker, and Webb has the versatility to move around the secondary between safety and nickel if need-be.

According to Boyd, the wide spacing of Baylor-like Air Raid teams makes it difficult for the secondary to not only swarm to receivers on the edge, but also to limit running backs if the defensive line isn't able to make the tackle at or near the line. This responsibility often falls on the free safety.

Therefore, elite athleticism -- including lateral quickness and straight-line speed -- will be paramount, but so will play recognition and system experience, all of which this group should have.

The data suggests returning experience is more important on the defensive side of the ball than on offense and that returning passes broken up is correlated with high defensive S&P+. That's obviously low for next year's group.

Talent won't be an issue for the safeties, nor should experience in the system, as all but incoming freshman Jordan Fuller have been on the team for at least two years. But game experience is another story, and this group's early development against Bowling Green, Tulsa, and Oklahoma will determine whether this year's supposedly-rebuilding group of Buckeyes can reach the playoff again.