Ohio State football: Safeties in surprising spots as practice starts

COLUMBUS —Ohio State football practice for 2023 started Thursday morning at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

The weather was hot and sunny as reporters and a group of 500 paying fans watched the Buckeyes take the field for the first time since spring.

The heat was not surprising, nor was much of what transpired as players moved about the field between drills and the depth chart took an early shape.

An exception was the starting safety group, which consisted of Lathan Ransom, Ja’Had Carter and Sonny Styles.

The top three was somewhat expected, but their alignment was not.

While Ransom returned to the Bandit (boundary/weak side) position he manned last year, Carter assumed the “Adjuster” (middle) role, and Styles took over at the Nickel (slot).

At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Styles is built more like a box safety or linebacker, but the son of former Ohio State linebacker Lorenzo Styles Sr. has uncommon athleticism.

The thought after spring practice was he would be more of a fit for the boundary role because that player will frequently end up helping against the run in Knowles’ scheme while the nickel in his defense is more of a coverage player than it is in others.

Slotting Styles into the nickel role could signal a different role for the position as Knowles adjusts to the personnel he has in Columbus, or it could signal Styles is just a unique player with unique skills.

Or both?

“Yeah, don’t assume anything with Sonny,” Knowles said. “He’s extremely talented, and he can do it all.”

Knowles also liked what he has seen from Carter, a transfer from Syracuse where he played multiple roles but predominantly lined up in the slot as a three-year starter.

“Ja’Had being a transfer has just been a very coachable player,” Knowles said. “He’s one of those guys you can say something to correct it, and then he corrects it immediately on the field. That’s rare. So his learning and processing of our system has been great. Sonny is that guy that we are continually trying to find ways to get him on the field and let him be a factor in the game. So we’re planning on him being out there a lot.”

Knowles was happy to have starting linebackers Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers back after they sat out spring to recuperate from injuries, and he expressed optimism the defensive line could be a dominant unit.

Overall, getting a feel for who is going to be starting was not easy because many of the units were split between two practice fields, something Knowles said is beneficial because it allows more players to get more reps.

But he wants to see his secondary players develop defined roles in hopes that will make them better in the long run.

“The only way to get better is to play, so the more reps the better,” he said.

Knowles was hired a year ago to fix a defense that had lost its way in a big way.

He guided the Buckeyes back to a path toward respectability, but they veered off course at the end of the season.

Despite showing significant improvement on a play-to-play basis, Ohio State’s progress was undone by mistakes at the end of the season that resulted in big plays being the difference in losses to Michigan and Georgia.

“I do see it clicking,” Knowles said when asked if he could see on day one an improvement in year two under his scheme. “I see more players in the right spot. I see more players understanding, and it’s more of the ‘why’. Why I call certain things. I expect all of the guys to be able to answer that, not just what or where or how but why? What is the purpose behind this call, and they’re able to see that now.”

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