Ohio State football: Legacy defender could unlock long-sought improvement

COLUMBUS — Sonny Styles has not played many snaps for the Ohio State defense yet, but his legend is already noticeable.

As the son of Lorenzo Styles, a standout linebacker for the Buckeyes in the 1990s, Sonny has been on the radar of long-time Ohio State football fans who also follow high school football for some time.

Becoming a five-star prospect rounded up more followers, too, and helping Pickerington Central upset Centerville in the Division I basketball state championship game two years ago surely didn’t hurt.

Then he made the surprising decision to graduate a year early from high school and enroll at Ohio State last summer.

That added to the curiosity factor, especially when he managed to make a few appearances on defense over the course of the season, including a dozen snaps against Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

There is also the matter of Buckeye fans looking for a savior for a defense that has been bad more often than it has been good since 2020.

That all leads to an obvious question leading into 2023.

Can Sonny Styles help Ohio State unlock the secrets to the Buckeyes actually being able to stop teams when it counts?

He didn’t sound too worried about the hype when he met with reporters Tuesday.

“I think I can become a really good player,” he said. “You know, I got a great coach in (Perry Eliano), and I think if I listen to what he says and just do what I’m supposed to, I think he’ll develop me into a good player.

Eliano, who is in his second season coaching safeties at Ohio State, does not come across as a hype man, but he confirmed he sees great potential in the 6-foot-4, 229-pound Styles.

“You’ve got a 17-year-old coming in who had reclassified and obviously looks like a grown man when he steps in the door (last year), but the fact of the matter is, he was still 17-years-old,” Eliano said. “He hadn’t played college ball, and so Sonny is just, his maturity, his willingness to be coached, his selflessness. To me, that’s the biggest thing is he’s been that way since day one. He’s not an entitled guy, and I’m excited to see what he does this year.”

Styles has enjoyed a quick rise from player without a position to potential deep safety to nickel since the winter.

Eliano said not to read too much into who lined up where on the first day of preseason practice, but seeing Styles line up in the slot against today’s multifaceted offenses naturally makes the Xs-and-Os-inclined mind wander.

He outweighs last year’s nickel, Tanner McAlister, by more than 30 pounds but is probably faster and more athletic, too.

Styles’ coverage skills are a question at this point, but he is eager to put those to rest, too.

“I think it’s just another way to display versatility,” he said of the coaches giving him a look at nickel. “I’m able to be in a slot playing coverage, being able to blitz off the edge, things like that. So I think it’s just a way for them to display my versatility. I think it makes me feel good to know that they trust me or believe in me and will move me around different places.”

But Eliano said to focus on Styles’ mind, not his frame.

“I think the uniqueness of Sonny is just his football IQ, his ability to truly process and articulate his ability to be coached and understand the pieces around him at such a young age,” Eliano said. “I think that’s where the uniqueness is because you don’t get that all the time.”

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