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Malik Hooker looks a lot like Ohio State’s next elite safety

Mike Doss ... Donte Whitner ... Vonn Bell ... Malik Hooker?

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Notre Dame vs Ohio State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

During Ohio State’s 2016 spring game you may have noticed an unfamiliar face making familiar plays in the Buckeyes’ secondary. With 10 tackles and 2 interceptions, Malik Hooker announced his arrival as Ohio State’s new starting safety in a big way. Hooker got his feet wet in 2015 to the tune of 10 tackles on the season, but the time for Hooker to take the next step is finally here thanks to the early departures of Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell.

Part of the Buckeyes’ 2014 recruiting class, Hooker’s three-star recruiting ranking is a bit misleading. Often we think of three-star recruits as either great players who lack the measurables to really thrive at the next level, or underachieving players with fantastic athleticism. Hooker is the rare three-star who found himself slightly underrated due to the fact that he only played football for his final two years of high school. It’s easy to see why this was the case, as Hooker’s ridiculous athleticism made him a beast on the hardwood:

Luckily for Ohio State, Urban Meyer and company were able to persuade Hooker into pursuing football, and now the Silver Bullets have a 6’2 205 lb. freak athlete patrolling the middle of their secondary. While Hooker will need to prove that he can produce on Saturdays, there’s a reason for the hype surrounding number 24. Mainly, the fact that Hooker made his presence felt on the practice field in a big way during 2015:

The above tweet came in reaction to Hooker’s aforementioned 2 interceptions in the 2016 spring game, and when 10th overall pick Eli Apple is giving you props, that’s a very good thing. These (alleged) ball skills are certainly encouraging, but it’s Hooker’s athleticism that makes him such an enticing prospect.

For Ohio State to run their base cover 4 scheme, the safeties need to be able to keep up with speedy slot receivers. Meyer loved to bring up Bell’s ability to cover like a corner, and while Hooker has a ways to go to reach Bell’s coverage ability, having prototypical size and athletic ability is a good place to start.

"[Ohio State assistant coach] Luke Fickell called me the other night and said Malik ran a [4.56-second] 40 at a workout, with no technique and basically just standing from a ready, set, go position. He said their strength and conditioning coach looked at him and said, 'Oh my God, I can do something special with this kid.' " - New Castle basketball coach Ralph Blundo

New secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano has been training his safeties to play both free and strong safety in order to get the best players on the field, regardless of position. While some defenses may prefer to have a prototypical strong and free safety (think Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas respectively of the Seattle Seahawks), having a pair of safeties who can interchangeably switch responsibilities gives the defense a lot of flexibility. Not only can they rotate seamlessly on the field, but having versatile safeties also offers the defense a chance to better disguise coverages, since the offense will not always know who is playing what.

With the loss of three starters in the secondary, the Silver Bullets will need to replace a lot of playmaking, and it’s telling that Hooker has all but secured one of the newly open spots on a depth chart full of question marks. Ohio State’s first three opponents in 2016 all had top 20 passing offenses in 2015 (in terms of passing yards/game), and there is no question they will all test a young Buckeyes’ secondary early and often. 2014 saw Gunner Kiehl (still in college, somehow) shred an Ohio State secondary with three touchdowns over 60 yards early in the season, and this new secondary must grow up fast to avoid another early season scare.

“Great job, he’s had an excellent spring...The thing he’s missing is the on-field arrogance of a guy like Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell. I should word that differently. Not to the point you’re taunting and all that, I’m not talking about that, but the confidence level.” - Head Coach Urban Meyer

Watching Vonn Bell let the offense hear it after a big play was great to watch, but what Meyer is really hoping to see from Hooker is the confidence to play up to his enormous ceiling. Safeties make their living stepping in front of a pass that no one thought they had a chance at (even Lane Kiffin), and this ability requires the safety to play without a doubt or fear in their mind. Safeties need to be conservative to an extent to prevent the big play of course, but they’re on the field to make their own big plays, and this happens through confidence in their immense ability.

Watching the young Buckeyes’ defense in 2016 will have it’s fair share of ups and downs. Big plays will be forced, and big plays will be allowed. Look for the versatile Malik Hooker to be at the forefront of the new-look Buckeye defense, and don’t tune out once the play is made, as once Hooker gets the ball in his hands, look out: because the fun has just begun: