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Ohio State Position-by-Position 2022 Preview: Safeties

Junior Ronnie Hickman led the Buckeyes with 100 tackles during the 2021 season.
Junior Ronnie Hickman led the Buckeyes with 100 tackles during the 2021 season. (Scott Stuart)

New defensive coordinator Jim Knowles wants Ohio State to become a “safety-driven defense” under his coaching.

The secondary has raised concern over recent seasons, prompting head coach Ryan Day and the Buckeyes to make a change this offseason. Perry Eliano left Cincinnati’s safeties coach position to take the same role at Ohio State in January, complementing new cornerbacks and secondary coach Tim Walton.

Eliano coached the likes of Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, who the New York Jets selected No. 4 overall, and defensive backs Bryan Cook and Coby Bryant, who were chosen in the second and fourth rounds, respectively, during the NFL draft in April.

Not only did the Buckeyes overhaul their secondary coaching staff, they also saw changes within their safeties room.

Graduate Tanner McCalister followed Knowles from Oklahoma State, transferring into the Buckeyes’ program with a leg up on his new teammates on the changing defensive scheme. He played in each of the last four seasons, including all 14 games with the Cowboys in 2021.

Ohio State will also see junior Ronnie Hickman undertake a second season as the starting “bullet” or hybrid safety in addition to the return of fifth-year Josh Proctor. Proctor suffered a broken leg against then-No. 12 Oregon in September last season, missing the rest of his senior campaign.

Next up in the Position Previews series in advance of the Buckeyes’ 2022 season is the safeties room, where Ohio State will combine veterans and youth to take the unit in a new direction.

A glance at Ohio State’s safeties room  

Here are the safeties listed on Ohio State’s roster:

Redshirt freshman Jantzen Dunn

Junior Ronnie Hickman

Redshirt freshman Jaylen Johnson

Sophomore Cameron Martinez

Graduate Tanner McCalister

Fifth-year Josh Proctor

Junior Lathan Ransom

Freshman Kye Stokes

Sophomore Kourt Williams III

McCalister and Stokes are two additions to Ohio State’s safeties room through its transfer and recruiting classes.

Spending the last four seasons playing under Knowles at Oklahoma State, McCalister appeared in 50 games and totaled 123 tackles. He was a regular starter during the last two years — even playing some at cornerback — and began 24-consecutive contests at one point.

Ohio State’s safeties room has several players who are banged up and coming back from injuries. Dunn and Ransom saw their 2021 seasons cut short due to leg injuries, and Johnson didn’t play at all due to a torn ACL.

Who are the returning starters?  

Junior Ronnie Hickman led the Buckeyes with 100 tackles during the 2021 season.
Junior Ronnie Hickman led the Buckeyes with 100 tackles during the 2021 season. (Scott Stuart)

Hickman will man his familiar post as Ohio State’s returning tackles leader, but the transfer of Bryson Shaw to USC will create a need to fill snaps going into the 2022 season.

Shaw played in 13 games and recorded the third-most tackles among Buckeyes last year. Ransom has the second-most starts among returning safeties but suffered a leg injury during the Rose Bowl, while Proctor has four starts in his career after making one last season.

Martinez and Williams enjoyed their first full seasons last year after playing in just one combined game in 2020. Martinez recorded four pass break ups and 23 tackles, including a 61-yard pick-six, while Williams racked up four tackles for loss.

Three keys to remember  

Eliano coached safeties to success at past stops

Part of the reason Ohio State brought in Eliano is because the Buckeyes want to see improvement from their safeties.

Another reason is because of Eliano’s track record.

Cincinnati boasted college football’s top-ranked pass efficiency defense and held opponents to 169.2 passing yards per game last season, which was the second-best in the NCAA. Eliano had his hands on the Bearcats’ defense that limited teams when they dropped back to make a pass.

Gardner became a First Team All-American and Bryant won the Jim Thorpe Award given to college football’s top defensive back. Eliano coached those two defensive backs over the last two seasons with the Bearcats, and Ohio State hopes it can see some of his success in its own safeties room.

The Buckeyes allowed opposing teams to throw for about 246.2 yards per game, ranking third-worst in the Big Ten. Hickman earned Second Team all-conference honors, but was the only Buckeye safety to earn postseason recognition.

Eliano has stops at Central Arkansas, Bowling Green and New Mexico, and now turns to Ohio State for his first coaching job in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes could be next to reap the benefits of Eliano’s coaching knowledge.

McAlister knows Knowles’ defense

Knowles wasn’t the only Cowboy to become a Buckeye during the offseason.

Ohio State welcomed McAlister to its safeties room via the transfer portal in January. He recorded a critical pass break up against then-No. 10 Oklahoma to defeat the Sooners last season among his 14 starts.

McAlister is also a well-decorated student-athlete, earning First Team Academic All-Big 12 recognition from 2019-21.

His knowledge may be what Ohio State seeks from McAlister in addition to his athletic prowess.

McAlister joined Oklahoma State in 2018 when Knowles first took over as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator. Known for his unique defensive mind, Knowles is willing to get creative when it comes to stopping opposing teams, and could bring new ideas such as the “Leo” or hybrid linebacker to the Buckeyes.

Having past experience under Knowles’ defensive scheme will help McAlister communicate the new concepts to his new Buckeye teammates, which is something Ohio State hopes can help fast-track improvements into its secondary that ranked in the bottom-half of the Big Ten last season.

Stokes has momentum after big spring

On April 8, Stokes became the first member of Ohio State’s 2022 recruiting class to shed his black stripe, officially making him part of the Buckeyes’ “Best in America” or “BIA” mantra.

Less than 10 days later, Stokes proved why he deserved to be the first in his class to lose his black stripe behind a nine-tackle performance in the spring game, turning heads while making some of his earliest impressions in a Buckeye uniform.

Stokes came to Ohio State as a four-star safety and member of the 2022 Rivals250, being one of four defensive backs the Buckeyes brought in their class. The Florida native stands 6-foot-2, one of the tallest safeties in the room alongside Proctor.

Ohio State benefitted from impact freshmen last season, such as cornerback Denzel Burke and defensive tackle Tyleik Williams. Stokes is already showing he could be one of those first-year contributors, displaying promising development during the spring.

Two questions for the room  

Then-senior Josh Proctor suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 2 during the 2021 season.
Then-senior Josh Proctor suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 2 during the 2021 season. (Scott Stuart)

How does Proctor perform in his return to the field?

In the third quarter against the Ducks last season, Proctor suffered a leg injury that forced his season to end after just two games.

Proctor’s season-ending injury in Week 2 forced the Buckeyes to turn to Hickman and Shaw as experienced safeties, which produced results that saw the two rank in the top-three tacklers among Ohio State defenders.

A veteran of 27 games entering the 2021 season, Proctor figured to lead the safeties unit prior to his injury. Now, Ohio State hopes he can return and get back to his role as a reliable option in the secondary.

Proctor’s experience is impressive; he backed up 2020 seventh-round pick and 2019 starter Jordan Fuller for two seasons. Proctor has played against some of the top competition in the Big Ten and on a national scale, snagging an interception against No. 14 Northwestern in the 2020 Big Ten Championship game and making four tackles against No. 3 Clemson during the Fiesta Bowl in 2019.

He’ll make his return to the football field this fall, and Proctor has shown he’s capable when Ohio State turns to him. With a new safeties coach and full season ahead, Proctor could be an impactful contributor in the Buckeyes’ safeties room.

Will health be a factor in 2022?

Among the near-half dozen safeties at Ohio State, several of them have suffered significant injuries in recent seasons.

Johnson missed all of last season, and Dunn, Proctor and Ransom all had their campaigns ended due to injury. Hickman, Martinez and Williams have also been banged up at points during their football careers.

Ohio State must trot someone out as its starting safety come the season-opener against Notre Dame Sept. 3. While most of the Buckeyes will be looking forward to making their comebacks, health issues could be in the back of their minds.

Dunn and Ransom were held out of spring practices due to their respective injuries, while Proctor is on course to make his return to the field this fall.

Ohio State has seen glimpses from Martinez and Williams while it’ll see new production from additions such as McCalister and Stokes, two players who have momentum after strong springs. Coming back from injuries and learning from new coaching ideas, Ohio State’s safeties will look to benefit from successful rehabs and capitalize with favorable results.

One prediction for the 2022 season  

Junior Ronnie Hickman caught two interceptions and made 54 unassisted tackles during the 2021 season.
Junior Ronnie Hickman caught two interceptions and made 54 unassisted tackles during the 2021 season. (Scott Stuart)

Ohio State will see 3 safeties drafted on Day 2 or earlier

Fuller is the most-recent Buckeye safety selected during the NFL draft in 2020. Ohio State had safeties taken in back-to-back drafts with Vonn Bell and Malik Hooker from 2016-17.

But the Buckeyes haven't seen more than one safety taken in the same draft.

Multiple Ohio State defensive backs have been selected in the same year before, which isn't particularly new given Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley both went in the first round in 2017.

The Buckeyes have a viable case to see multiple safeties taken in 2023.

Hickman, McCalister and Proctor will be draft-eligible after next season, and all could test the waters and jump to the professional level. The trio have played in a combined 95 games over 10 combined seasons.

Playing in their fifth seasons at the college level come this fall, McCalister and Proctor will have some of the most experience among all safeties. McCalister finished among the top-seven tackle totals at Oklahoma State last season, and Proctor is among the top-three Buckeye safeties in terms of starts.

Hickman enjoyed a breakout 2021 season in which he topped Ohio State's individual tackles leaders and tied for the team lead in interceptions. He'll enter his fourth year at Ohio State looking to make an impact in his third season of play, and a big 2022 could boost his draft value.

Ohio State could rely on its veterans to reliably play and enforce new ideas in its safeties room. Under Eliano, who's players he coached at Cincinnati saw draft success, the Buckeyes could see similar results for several of their safeties.