In what has been an offseason full of almost exclusively excellent news for Ohio State, the Buckeyes made one of the biggest splashes in all of college football with the addition of former Alabama safety Caleb Downs on Friday night.
Downs, the No. 1 overall player in the transfer portal per 247Sports, quickly became one of the nation’s best safeties as a true freshman for the Crimson Tide in 2023. The younger brother of NFL wide receiver Josh Downs, the 6-foot DB led Alabama’s defense with 107 total tackles — 40 (!) more than the next-highest player — to go along with two interceptions, four pass breakups, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He also added an 85-yard punt return touchdown to his ledger.
Rumors began swirling after Nick Saban’s announced retirement that Downs could enter the transfer portal, and once Georgia hired away Alabama defensive assistant Travaris Robinson, that seemed all but an assured outcome. That move immediately made the Bulldogs the favorite to land Downs once he did officially enter the portal, and Kirby Smart’s group felt like a near-lock to add the former No. 1 safety and No. 8 overall player in the 2023 class.
However, a contingent of Ohio State coaches, including head coach Ryan Day, made the trip down to Georgia for an in-home visit with Downs and his family on Thursday. A two-team battle between the pair of blue blood programs, the Buckeyes appeared to be a real long-shot to pry Downs away from the in-state Bulldogs. But after finishing second to Alabama for the 2023 Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year Award-winner during his initial recruitment, Ohio State was able to come away victorious the second time around in a massive upset.
Downs will obviously be an immediately starter in Columbus, and he joins an Ohio State defense that returns seven of its 11 starting players from a year ago. With the star safety now in the fold, there will be virtually zero questions about what the Buckeyes’ defensive depth chart will look like for Jim Knowles in 2024.
Beginning in the secondary, Tim Walton and new safeties coach Matt Guerrieri will have one of the most talented units in the country. Downs and Lathan Ransom will join nickel Jordan Hancock as your three safeties, with Denzel Burke and Davison Igbinosun at cornerback. Even with a rich history of developing defensive backs, this could very well be one of the best secondaries Ohio State has ever had. Every one of these guys returns starting experience and proven track records of high-level play, with Downs essentially replacing Josh Proctor.
The linebacker group is where things start to get interesting — in a good way. The Buckeyes will have to replace both of last season’s starting backers in Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers, but the addition of Downs allows you to now move Sonny Styles down into the box to a position that will better suit both his skillset and a more ideal playing weight. Styles should get the nod as one of Ohio State’s starting linebackers, and will likely be flanked by Cody Simon, who has played over 500 snaps for the Buckeyes over the past two seasons. C.J. Hicks will be in the mix as well in what should be a very strong and versatile position group.
Up front, Ohio State returns both of its starting defensive ends in J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer, as well as one of its two starting defensive tackles in Tyleik Williams, with Mike Hall Jr. having declared for the NFL Draft. In his place will likely be Ty Hamilton, who played over 300 snaps last season — only about 50 less than Hall — but don’t be surprised if guys like Hero Kanu or Tywone Malone also see a good amount of reps up the middle.
It remains to be seen if Larry Johnson will allow Knowles to get a little more variable with his defensive line, but it would be really interesting and probably very effective to see Ohio State utilize a three-down front, with Tuimoloau, Sawyer and Williams as your true D-lineman and both Styles and Hicks alternating between outside linebacker and the JACK position. Getting those guys involved in rushing the quarterback could greatly help with the Buckeyes’ lack of sack production the past few seasons, and would add a wrinkle to Ohio State’s defense while putting your best 11 players all on the field at once.
Regardless if Knowles is allowed to have some fun and utilize some different fronts, we have a nearly set in stone idea of how Ohio State’s base defense will look in 2024. Downs is the first transfer portal addition for the Buckeyes on the defensive side of the ball, and it would be surprising to see them add elsewhere outside of maybe a depth piece along the defensive line or at linebacker — which isn’t a need by any means, but can’t be ruled out as a possibility.
The Silver Bullets are going to be absolutely nasty this upcoming season, and Downs could be the piece that finally brings it all together as Ohio State looks to make a national title run in the new Big Ten and an expanded College Football Playoff.