Ohio State football: 1 starting spot on defense in doubt as preseason winds down

COLUMBUS — The defensive lineup Ohio State will trot out to begin the season at Indiana is coming into focus.

Second-year coordinator Jim Knowles filled in some of the final blanks Monday, though he said at least one spot remains wide open.

That is the “Adjuster” or middle safety, which could still be played by a sixth-year man (Josh Proctor), a true freshman (Malik Hartford) or a transfer (Ja’Had Carter).

The other deep safety will be Lathan Ransom, a returning starter, while the Nickel will be Sonny Styles.

The latter decision could mean a new name for the position — Knowles suggested “Strike,” though he seemed to be just riffing — but it definitely means a different job description because the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Styles is much closer to a linebacker or box safety than the cover man he has used in that spot more recently.

“That position has been mainly a third corner/DB-type of spot for me,” said Knowles, who had 5-11, 195-pound Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCalister in the role last season. “Then you get into a lot of situations where there’s a tight end in that matchup and not a slot receiver and then you’re just trying to hold up with a nickel.

“What I saw with Sonny is he has the ability to play high safety and play man coverage, but he also has the length and the toughness to play up close to the ball, so you play him in that Nickel/’Strike’ position, and then you have a lot more flexibility in terms of, ‘OK, is he man on the slot? Is he zone? Is he inside or outside? Is he blitzing off the edge?’ Sonny just creates a whole different dynamic.”

At cornerback, Denzel Burke returns as a third-year starter. The other spot could be shared by junior Jordan Hancock and Davison Igbinosun, a transfer from Mississippi.

“Our corner development has been great,” Knowles said. “Davison has been one of the best cover guys in camp. I think our receivers would say that. So between him and Jordan and Denzel, I see a ton of growth there.”

Using Styles at Nickel likely would mean Ohio State has another package with five true defensive backs, creating the opportunity for Hancock and Igbinosun to play tougher or a chance to get a young player such as Jyaire Brown onto the field.

Brown is a sophomore from Lakota West who is a cornerback by trade.

“I just think it’s trying to put the best guys in the best positions, trying to get your best 11 on the field,” Knowles said. “Being prepared for matchups as they come now or in the future. Kind of a long-term thing so we get the right people when we need them on a slot. It was good to get Jordan prepared for that so that he understands it.”

Seniors Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers return at linebacker, which means sophomore C.J. Hicks could be utilized in a special package (known as the “Jack”) that lets him rush the passer, drop into coverage and generally do whatever he can to gum up the works for the offense.

Up front, defensive line coach Larry Johnson likes to rotate as many players as he can, and he seems to have a set top four of J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer at end with Ty Hamilton and Mike Hall Jr. inside.

Tyleik Williams also figures to be in the mix heavily at tackle if healthy while second-year players Kenyatta Jackson and Caden Curry have reportedly had great offseason.

“Our Rushman have had a great camp,” Knowles said, invoking the term Johnson has given his guys since arriving in Columbus. “We have four ends there that I think are as good as anyone in the country. I think the depth there is fantastic. I think you have potentially elite players in J.T., Jack and Kenyatta, Caden Curry’s just a guy who’s going to show up and make plays, so you’ve got four really good ends, and I feel like the rush has been strong. We’ve felt it. We’ve felt it and seen it during camp.

“You’re always concerned about depth inside at defensive tackle because those guys just get beat up. It’s a hard position, but Mike Hall can be elite (if he) stays healthy. He’s talented, plays hard. Tyleik’s been a little banged up, so you see waves during camp at that defensive tackle position where it can become thin quickly. One of the young guys I think has had a really good camp is Hero Kanu. I mean he has shown up. So I think he’s going to add to our depth there.”

Mitchell Melton is also in the mix at defensive end and could be part of the Jack rotation (if there is one).

“I like C.J. there; Mitchell Melton too,” Knowles said. “Both of those guys have been active and understanding of the system and making a lot of plays. There’s some freedom that goes with it and I think there’s a future for both of them.”

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