COLUMBUS — From the moment premier athlete and five-star safety Sonny Styles reclassified to the 2022 recruiting class and committed to the hometown Ohio State Buckeyes, he was tabbed as an immediate difference maker. Now, with Styles a week shy of his 19th birthday, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles can —and must —fully unleash Styles’ potential as an every-down safety.
Starting “bandit” safety Lathan Ransom’s injury suffered on Oct. 28 at Wisconsin has been confirmed to have, at best, ended his regular season. Few players’ performance on the Ohio State defense this season has been more critical to its resurgence than Ransom’s, leaving a significant hole to be filled with just two games remaining.
Syles had been splitting time with Jordan Hancock at the nickel safety position until Ransom’s injury, although the strong safety position was largely viewed as a natural fit for Styles’ combination of size and athleticism. The early returns have been strong for Styles, who played well at Rutgers with seven total tackles before recording his second sack of the season last week in a 38-3 drubbing of Michigan State.
“Scheme-wise, it’s pretty similar for me,” Styles said Wednesday of the move to strong safety. “You’re just relating one (position) to the field and one to the boundary. It’s similar pressures and things like that, so it wasn’t that big of a jump for me or too big of a difference. But it’s definitely a bigger role, especially when (Josh) Proctor went down as well. I think it was a little bit of me trying to step up and be more of a leader as well in the secondary.”
Perhaps the biggest adjustment, Styles said, has been the number of plays he’s on the field and the toll that can take if he’s not taking care of himself.
“Going from 30 plays to 70 plays, that’s a little bit of an adjustment,” he said. “But I think I did fine. It’s all about how you prepare, how you take care of your body, and recovering after the game. My body feels good.”
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Styles is an imposing figure near the line of scrimmage in both run support and as a pass rusher. But in serving as the nickel safety at times this season, Styles has had to develop his coverage abilities, rounding out his skill set as a potential do-everything safety.
“He has range,” Knowles said of Styles. “He has a lot of experience. We were able to gain him that cover experience at the nickel position, covering the slot in the open field, which is a difficult thing to do as that translates into the boundary. He just has a lot of versatility and made some plays in the last game blitzing for us. He can be a real factor in the blitz game, also.”
Safeties coach Perry Eliano credits Styles’ ability to transition seamlessly to Styles’s grasp of the defense and what is expected of him every play.
“Really being able to talk more and diagnose plays before they happen,” Eliano said of Styles’ mental growth. “He’s able to really just hone in and practice it, and you see him making plays. That’s what’s exciting to me.”
While the loss of Ransom is undoubtedly a hit to a team with national championship aspirations, having a player like Styles to slot into the position is a luxury Knowles and the Ohio State secondary simply didn’t have a year ago. Add in the play of true freshman Malik Hartford, who has been forced into action the past two weeks in the absence of Josh Proctor, and the safety depth at Ohio State is in good shape.
“Lathan is a part of us, but we’re better set up,” Knowle said. “We have more versatility and more experience, and guys just understand the system so they can fit in different places.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.