COLUMBUS — Rarely does a true freshman find his way into the starting lineup for Ohio State at any point, but that’s exactly where Malik Hartford found himself as the Buckeyes prepared to take on Youngstown State on Sept. 9.
With veteran safety Josh Proctor unable to play, Hartford slotted in alongside Lathan Ransom and Sonny Styles to record his first career start. That Hartford was tabbed to replace Proctor was hardly surprising as his name was mentioned often in preseason camp as someone who could help the Ohio State secondary immediately, and he also saw action in the season-opening win at Indiana the week prior.
Hartford’s first taste as a starting defensive back at Ohio State lasted exactly one series, though, as defensive coordinator Jim Knowles pulled him after the opening possession in favor of more experienced Syracuse transfer Ja’Had Carter.
The emotional roller coaster of preparing for a first start and then being benched after just one series would be difficult for any freshman to navigate, but Hartford stayed the course and was once again called upon to help his team last Saturday.
With Ransom already sidelined and Proctor appearing to suffer a head injury in the third quarter, Hartford was thrust into a contested game at Rutgers and fared well with a tackle and a pass broken up in the 35-16 victory. Asked about Hartford on Tuesday, Knowles credited his work ethic and ability to stay mentally engaged as the primary reasons he got the nod last week.
“He’s just kept his focus,” Knowles said. “He hasn’t let it get him down. He’s just been focused on getting better, learning the game, and processing things at a high speed. He’s been practicing well and staying with it.”
Speaking with the media on Wednesday for the first time this season, Hartford echoed Knowles’ assessment, saying his only focus since that first career start has been continuing to improve his craft.
“Coach Knowles thought he did what was best in that situation, what was best for the team, and I just have to play through it,” Hartford said of being benched against Youngstown State.
Not shy on confidence, Hartford wasn’t surprised by the early start in September, saying he felt he had put himself in position to earn the start thanks to the work he put in during the offseason. However, Hartford acknowledged he didn’t play as well as he’d hoped during that lone series and chalked up the struggles to issues every true freshman faces during their first season of play at the highest level of college football.
“I feel comfortable (now),” he said. “I kind of settled in being in the game environment more. That was the first home game where I got to see the fans. I’ve just been getting acclimated and getting used to the guys. They support and trust me, so that’s a big factor.”
He added, “The game speed is a lot different. Being in the game, the players running at you are a lot bigger (than high school). I’m a smaller guy, so I have to get used to playing with my body frame and being physical.”
Simply going through practice week after week, particularly against Ohio State’s loaded group of wide receivers, has also helped Hartford settle into the speed of the game and find his footing.
“I would say practice is definitely harder than the games. I’m playing against receivers that are (NFL) first-rounders, and it’s more physical in practice,” he said.
With Ransom’s absence likely to continue, Ohio State’s depth at safety has taken a hit. Proctor is expected to play on Saturday against Michigan State, but Hartford is firmly positioned to play a significant role as Ohio State enters the final stretch of its regular season should there be any more injuries.
Whether that moment comes on Saturday or not remains to be seen. For now, Hartford is simply focused on maintaining his approach to each week of preparation and looking forward to his first night game in Ohio Stadium.
“I’m excited to see what the environment is like. I haven’t experienced (a night game) before, so we’ll see how it goes,” he said.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.