Ohio State’s safeties had their hands full a season ago, constantly forced into action as the last line of defense, with poor schemes and blown coverages leading to big chunk plays by opposing offenses. While it is hard to blame the safety play for the amount of long touchdowns the Buckeyes let up last year, they certainly did not help themselves, and will have to be much better in 2019. Luckily for them, the defense in front of them will be better, leading to less one-on-ones and hopefully increased production.
The safety position will look a little different this season. Under new defensive back coach Jeff Hafley, the Buckeyes will be returning all of their safeties from a season ago. However, they are introducing a new position into the mix — the Bullet. This new spot on the defense will function as a safety/linebacker hybrid, and should play a big part in improving the problems of last year’s unit. With that being said, let’s take a look at how the depth chart will shake out come the season opener.
Ohio State’s safety unit has the benefit of returning one of its most seasoned veterans on either side of the ball, Jordan Fuller. After missing the first game in 2018 with an injury, Fuller posted a team-high 81 total tackles, with 2.5 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Despite the expectation that Fuller would enter the NFL Draft, he instead decided to return for his senior season.
As a team captain, Fuller’s return is a huge boost for the Buckeye defense. One of the most consistent guys on the roster throughout his time in Columbus, Fuller has played in 31 games for Ohio State, and brings back with him a ton of experience in a mostly inexperienced unit. After having surgery in the offseason, fixing an undisclosed injury, Fuller missed spring practice, but has been a full participant in preseason camp and will be expected to lead the way for the Silver Bullets in 2019.
Speaking of bullets, the man who will occupy the newly designated position on Ohio State’s defense will be the man who lined up alongside Fuller at the other safety spot last season: Brendon White. OSU struggled to find a starting safety opposite Fuller to begin 2018, and it was not until a targeting call disqualified Fuller from the game against Nebraska that they found their answer in White. Seizing the opportunity, White would end up with a team-high 13 tackles against the Cornhuskers, including two for a loss, and earned himself a starting job the remainder of the year as he continued to flourish.
Standing at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, he is a little bulkier than your average defensive back. Despite his size, he still maintains excellent speed and quickness, making him an absolutely perfect fit for the Bullet position. White could be used in early downs as a run-stopper and pass-rusher, while also dropping back into coverage on obvious passing downs. White played just half a season a year ago as a sophomore. If he is able to build on that his junior year, he will be a dominant force and a potential game changer for Ohio State in his first full season.
The other starting safety spot, much like last season, is still up for grabs. While it maintains a three-man race, and will likely continue to be so throughout preseason camp and maybe even early into the year, one frontrunner for the job is sophomore Josh Proctor. A four-star recruit in the 2018 class, Proctor came to OSU as the No. 7 safety in the country and No. 2 player in his home state of Oklahoma.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Proctor has been making a ton of plays in preseason camp, albeit usually with the second- or third-team offense on the field. However, Proctor has been very highly touted since his recruitment and can continue to make noise en route to a starting job. While some had expected Proctor to make an instant impact at Ohio State, he was able to make the most of his time as a reserve a season ago, and could be in line for a breakout campaign, much like White last year.
As previously touched on, Fuller and White are firmly entrenched in their starting roles, but the other safety spot remains wide open. While it is Proctor who, at the moment, seems the most likely to fill that slot, he is rooted in a tough position battle with three junior defensive backs: Isaiah Pryor, Amir Riep and Jahsen Wint.
Wint began 2018 as a starter, but it quickly became apparent that he was just not quite ready for that role yet. The talent was clearly there, but too many mistakes as a young player limited his effectiveness. Wint excels most playing as an almost center fielder type deep safety, showcasing those skills with two interceptions in the spring game. With more experience under his belt, and a defense more suited to his play style, it would not be surprising to see Wint on the field often, especially on obvious deep passing plays.
Pryor split time with Wint at the beginning of last season. He, too, struggled in the passing game—unfairly cast into single coverage all too often but also making mistakes when it came to tackling and taking angles against the run. Fuller spent time at Big Ten media days discussing the fewer pre-snap calls the safeties will have to make this year, which he believes should benefit Pryor and give him more chances to focus on getting his hands on the ball.
Riep hasn’t seen much playing time to this point, playing in 26 total games but recording just 13 tackles, mostly on special teams. As a junior, the 6-foot, 195-pound safety out of Cincinnati does not have a ton of time left to prove his worth outside of the kicking unit. The team could also take a look at redshirt freshman Marcus Hooker, the younger brother of Malik Hooker. After battling an injury in 2018, Hooker is healthy this season, but unlikely to see much playing time outside special teams work.
The biggest focus for Ohio State’s safeties this year should be less on personnel and more on scheme. All too often last season, the back line of the Buckeyes’ defense was forced into one-on-one coverage versus speedy opposing receivers or pushed as the only option to make a tackle against a running back in the open field. Under Hafley, we should see less safeties left on an island and more used for their intended purpose: aid the cornerbacks in coverage, ballhawk the deep throws, and contain the running game with help from the linebackers.
Regardless of who starts next to Fuller and White, the unit as a whole is way more experienced than at the beginning of last season. All of the guys are another year older, which should mean another year wiser. The Buckeyes have four different guys back there with at least some experience as a starter, obviously none more than Fuller, who will be a key leader both within his own unit and on the defense as a whole.
If the rest of the defense is doing its job, the safeties should be in a much better position this season. Ohio State is lucky to have the problem that they currently have, which is too many talented guys all fighting for the same position. Hafley will certainly play a big role in helping to turn around some of the struggles guys faced last season as he reforms a potential weak unit into a strength of this Buckeye defense.