Buckeyes breakdown: Analyzing the Ohio State secondary

Ohio State’s secondary has been a first-class problem the last two seasons.

If that remains the case this fall, it won’t be for lack of trying something new.

New defensive coordinator Jim Knowles builds his scheme around the safeties, and cornerbacks will remain integral as well.

He is the first to acknowledge his unit is only as good as its players, though, and there is plenty of uncertainty about who will be on the field when the Buckeyes open the season against Notre Dame on Sept. 3.

Here is a look at those two groups of players heading into preseason practice:


Returning starters: Denzel Burke, Cameron Brown

In the mix: Jakailin Johnson, Jordan Hancock

On the horizon: Jyaire Brown, Ryan Turner

Burke had a standout true freshman year and could be poised for a super sophomore season. A four-star recruit from Arizona, he has the physical skills to excel... and perhaps more importantly the self-confidence.

After missing most of the 2020 season with a leg injury, Cam Brown returned last year and showed strong coverage ability while splitting time with Sevyn Banks. Brown considered entering the NFL Draft but opted to come back to raise his stock.

The pressure will be on Burke and Cam Brown to play up to expectations and remain on the field because there is not much known about the players behind them.

Johnson, who along with Cam Brown is a St. Louis native, redshirted last season and flashed in the spring game. So did Hancock, a Georgia native who is in his second season on campus as well.

They will almost certainly see some playing time, though how much remains to be seen as it is unknown if new cornerbacks coach Tim Walton favors rotating as much as predecessor Kerry Coombs did.

Credit: Marcus Hartman

Credit: Marcus Hartman

Jyaire Brown, a four-star recruit and Lakota West grad, and Turner might not play major roles this season after enrolling in January, but they will not be able to coast as they could be a couple of injuries away from being relied on heavily.


Returning starter: Ronnie Hickman

Projected new starters: Josh Proctor, Tanner McCalister

In the mix: Kourt Williams, Lathan Ransom, Cameron Martinez, Jantzen Dunn, Jaylen Johnson

On the horizon: Kye Stokes, Sonny Styles

Hickman led the team with 100 tackles last season as a sophomore, and he looks like he will be starting at middle safety (called the Adjuster) this season after playing in the boundary last year in the old defense. Coaches love his approach to the game, and he is likely to be a team leader.

Proctor began the season the starter in the middle but went down with a broken leg in Week 2. If he can return healthy, the senior from Oklahoma could claim the boundary safety position (the Bandit), which typically lines up away from the offense’s strength and/or toward the short side of the field.

McCalister is a fifth-year senior transfer who played nickel safety for Knowles at Oklahoma State and looks ticketed to doing the same thing at Ohio State. That position will be primality a cover man now after being more of a hybrid linebacker in the past for the Buckeyes.

Of the reserves, Martinez looks like the most natural fit at nickel based on his coverage ability.

Ransom is a third-year player who has played safety and nickel already at Ohio State but is recovering from a bad leg injury suffered in the Rose Bowl.

Williams has been an intriguing prospect since arriving from California as a four-star prospect in 2020, but exactly where he best fits remains to be seen. Coaches past and present have raved about this approach to the game, and he can provide a physical presence at 6-1, 220.

Dunn and Jaylen Johnson both suffered major injuries last season, slowing their development.

Stokes, a four-star prospect from Florida, enrolled early and was one of the top performers in the spring game (along with Hancock), so he could be poised to grab some playing time if any of the veterans falter.

Styles was set to be Ohio State’s top recruit for 2023 before deciding to graduate early from Pickerington Central and join the program this summer. He is a five-star talent and the son of former Buckeye linebacker Lorenzo Styles.

About the Author