Spring practice has officially begun at Ohio State, and getting a first look at the players always brings excitement to the fan base. The offense is well intact despite losing two all-time great receivers and two key contributors on the offensive line, and they are looking to build on the explosive results from last year.
On the defensive side, there are still a ton of questions to answer after a historically bad season. The expectations are not lost on Knowles, who said, “This program is ready to win every single game right now, and I have to get the defense to that level.” This will be no easy task given what he inherited, but the talent to get back to the highest level is there on paper. The most interesting question coming into this offseason: how do the current players on the roster fit into Jim Knowles’ scheme?
The one we’re going to be taking a look at here today is the safety positions. In his presser, Knowles talked about the three safety roles in the defensive backfield – which isn’t new for Ohio State – going into detail about the names of the positions.
For Knowles, the boundary safety is called the “Bandit”, the middle safety the “Adjuster”, and the nickel safety is called the “Nickel”. For Ohio State last year, those positions would respectively be the “Bullet”, Free Safety, and Cover Safety, and in the Buckeye defense last year there was a much more defined structure to the point of being detrimental. With the three positions generally matching up, the situation for new safeties coach Perry Eliano should make for a relatively seamless transition, but with a quick watch of Oklahoma State’s defense last year, the safety roles do not follow traditional safety responsibilities.
Before we get into those responsibilities, we’ll take a look at the players on the roster who played one of the three safety positions.
Cover Safety: Lathan Ransom, Cam Martinez, Marcus Williamson
Bullet: Ronnie Hickman, Kourt WIlliams
Free Safety: Josh Proctor, Bryson Shaw
Others: Andre Turrentine, Jantzen Dunn, Marcus Hooker
The group is adding quite a bit of help from recruiting with Sonny Styles Jr. and Kye Stokes joining the group, and they also added the transfer of Tanner McAlister into the room which should be an added bonus to the rotation as well. Looking at this group, there are a lot of players who could play in the many different roles, but forcing players into positions based on where they played last season will not work. Because Knowles wants three safeties who can do everything, this means versatile athletes will play the biggest part in how this shakes out.
The final point building on the versatility aspect before we look at potential positional fits comes back to being able to do everything. Knowles expects his safeties to be able to play in Quarters, 3-high, 2-high, zone match, and traditional man-to-man coverages. There is not one definitive way to play safety, and the way players will get on the field is versatility, discipline, and physicality.
The first position we’re going to look at is the “Bandit” which is the boundary side safety. This position will be a bigger safety body and will have more inside the box responsibilities. From last year’s team, this would be the roles of Ronnie Hickman and Kourt Williams. The incoming player who will potentially fit here is Sonny Styles Jr. Who brings his five-star pedigree to the room this summer. Of the players on the roster who can fit here, they could potentially utilize a player like Bryson Shaw as well.
At times last season under Knowles, against bigger personnel they would play with three bigger safeties, replacing the Nickel against heavier formations. That leaves a lot of potential for imagination when it comes to how this position is used.
A pseudo free safety in Knowles’ defense, this position has a ton of responsibilities in both the pass game and run game. Oftentimes last year, Oklahoma State’s main “Adjuster” was Kolby Harrell-Peel — a 207 pound safety who played the position exceptionally well earning All-Big 12 honors. This position could lend to the more traditional free safety role if Josh Proctor is healthy. This can also be a position that looks a lot different than it did previously at Ohio State. When you look at the name, this position is responsible for plugging the holes of the defense and being the adjusting piece to match the opposing offense.
The players who can play this position are Josh Proctor, Ronnie Hickman, Kourt Williams, Lathan Ransom, Sonny Styles, Bryson Shaw, and any of the young guys listed. This position requires the most versatility. Against run heavy teams they play inside the box a lot. Against teams who throw to the running back, they are the ones usually responsible for that coverage. They need to be a great half field defender and deep middle safety, when looking at this position many can emerge. From first indications, this looks like a way to get both Hickman and Williams on the field at the same time.
A couple of months ago I wrote about Tanner McAlister and went into some details of what was asked from this position. Overall, this position would be the least changed in the transition from last year to Knowles’ re-imagining of the defense. They take bigger corners or more athletic safeties, and they are responsible for slot receivers and setting the edge in the outside run game. The responsibilities here require tackling in space, setting edges, playing man-coverage against slots/tight ends, and mixing around the zones with the other two safeties.
This position will be where Cam Martinez, Lathan Ransom, Andre Turrentine, and McAlister will find opportunities. Being a great cover guy or great run defender won’t cut it though. This position requires the same level of versatility as the other two. This position also can be replaced by another bigger safety or a third linebacker type depending on the matchup. If Ohio State plays a team like Wisconsin or Michigan, look for them to get bigger personnel on the field. Against a team like Purdue or Michigan State, expect to see more cover guys on the field.
Jim Knowles’ main philosophy is playing offense on defense. He wants the offense questioning and reacting to everything the defense does. This starts with the versatility of the safety positions. If we project this based on past positions, we might be in for a few surprises, but looking at the personnel from last year at Oklahoma State, we see that all three safeties are able to play every safety responsibility. With the new coaching staff, players will have the opportunity to be evaluated by a fresh set of eyes, opening up plenty of opportunities to go around.
We can get a basis of the type of athlete we’d need to see at each position, but how Knowles attacks each team will be different. The question will be how does he see each player maximizing the game plan against an opposing offense, and then he goes from there. When looking at the “Adjuster”, it can be traditional free safety, but the position also lends to a bigger body type as well given some of the responsibilities. There will be a significant group of players who play and rotation of six to seven players given the three positions would not come as a shock.
The Buckeyes will look to rebuild this season, and this is going to be a fun position group to watch. From the looks of it, Knowles and Eliano will have the athletic versatility and a lot of talent to build an extremely dangerous back end.
More on Jim Knowles:
Knowles Study: Safeties | Knowles Study: Front-7 | Knowles Study: Pass Defense