COLUMBUS — Ohio State safeties coach Perry Eliano might be the busiest man in Columbus this spring.
He has three positions to fill and only one returning starter, but that’s just the beginning of the work to be done after high-profile failures by this group marked the end of the 2022 season.
“The cream will rise,” he said earlier this month. “It’s as simple as that. Through offseason workouts, through spring ball, the cream will rise.
“Our plan is to play well into January, so you got to have depth. It makes for a long season, so for us, I want that I want guys that have different skill sets.”
Here is an overview of the position heading into spring ball in March:
Returning starter: Lathan Ransom
Next in line: TBD
In the mix: Josh Proctor, Sonny Styles, Cam Martinez, Kye Stokes, Kourt Williams (out/injured)
Newcomers: Malik Hartford, Ja’Had Carter
On the way: Cedric Hawkins, Jayden Bonsu
This position group might have the most uncertainty of any for the Buckeyes this spring. Offensive line could be an exception, but there multiple starters return and some of the candidates to fill in are more obvious.
Ransom had a mostly positive first season as a starter, but most fans will most likely most remember his involvement in some of the big plays that cost the Buckeyes in losses to Michigan and Georgia.
A fourth-year player from Arizona, Ransom has a chance to rewrite his personal Ohio State history, something that might come easier with his being a full year removed from a gruesome leg injury he suffered in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2022.
Like many players, a second year in Jim Knowles’ defense should also be more comfortable for Ransom, who could find himself in a new spot.
He played the boundary safety, known as the “Bandit” last season but has often been described as a more natural fit at free safety, a.k.a. the “Adjustor.”
The latter more often plays the deep middle of the field, but many of their duties are interchangeable and overlap.
“Within our system, all three positions really have to do all things in some shape, form or fashion,” Eliano said. “So right now we’re just in the process of evaluation and making sure that we’re putting those guys in the very best positions to maximize their God-given ability and also to put us in a very best position as a defense to execute at the highest levels because we understand the magnitude of how we have to play as a safety group in order to have success.
Proctor and Styles both figure to be candidates at Bandit. Though they are both large, rangy players with some linebacker traits, they come from the opposite ends of the experience spectrum.
Proctor is a sixth-year senior looking to finally reach his potential while Styles is a second-year stud of whom great things are still expected as he has only just gotten his feet wet at this level.
“His football IQ is extremely high, and that’s a credit to his coach,” Eliano said of Styles, whose father Lorenzo was an All-Big Ten linebacker for the Buckeyes. “That’s a credit to his dad. That’s a credit to his upbringing, and that’s a credit to his great focus and discipline.
“The exciting thing is we haven’t really even scratched the surface of what he can be and I can see him being.”
Stokes turned some heads as a true freshman last spring, but he did not make much of an impact last fall as veteran Ronnie Stokes got most of the snaps at Adjustor.
Carter is a transfer from Syracuse, where he was a solid player for three seasons. Because he primarily played in the slot for the Orange, he has been penciled in for the Nickel safety role at Ohio State, but Eliano said nothing is certain yet.
“Right now everybody’s in an evaluation period,” the coach said. “I’m gonna put the best players on the field to make us the very best we can be, not only in the back end but as a defense and as a team.
“So everybody knows it’s safety-driven defense. Everybody has their own little niche, but as a safety group, we got to be able to do more than one thing. So right now, we’re still in the evaluation process, and it’s a fluid situation.”
Martinez was the No. 2 Nickel last season but endured some rough patches, most notably a long touchdown allowed in spot duty against Michigan. He is an intriguing talent after being a two-way star in high school, but finding his niche at Ohio State has proven to be a challenge.
A four-star prospect from Lakota West, Hartford was one of the highest-ranked recruits in Ohio in the 2023 class. He is the only Ohio State freshman safety to enroll early and join the team for winter workouts. He is viewed as a versatile, heady player who could fit any of the safety spots, but will it be sooner or later?
“Malik is extremely explosive,” Eliano said of the 6-foot-3, 175-pounder. “Plays bigger than what he is right now. That’s kind of the task: putting the weight on. Our nutrition staff is doing a phenomenal job with him, and just the biggest thing is he’s smart. He’s got a high football IQ. He’s very, very versatile, so we’re gonna be able to do a lot of things with him, and the cool thing is, he’s here. He’s here working out. He’s here for early morning workouts. He’s gonna get 15 practices in so I’m excited on a number of fronts from him, but I’ve seen great progress from him in these two weeks.”
About the Author