Ohio State has a secret weapon who’s ready to be its perfect solution at safety

COLUMBUS — Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles challenged Sonny Styles to first dominate the second-stringers in the spring if he wanted a shot at being a starting safety in 2023, and it looks like he’s done just that.

As the Buckeyes’ defense took the field for the first day of fall camp there was one safety lineup that remained constant throughout the day, suggesting that maybe the media was looking at this year’s starters. Lathan Ransom repped as the bandit as the lone returning starter looking to build on a breakout 2022 season. Ja’Had Carter repped at the adjuster, which was a new role for him after spending the spring working at the nickel spot.

Joining them was Styles, the former five-star recruit who reclassified to join the team early last season and immediately started turning heads even if it would take some time to turn into on-field opportunities. The should-have-been high school senior turned so many heads that Knowles started referring to him as his secret weapon.

“Sonny has earned that right to step up and play and be part of the ones,” Knowles said.

That weapon eventually got deployed against Wisconsin as a big nickel and in goal-line sets as he played nine snaps in the 52-21 win. Then we saw it again against Georgia in the Peach Bowl loss where he played 12 snaps.

Those were just small sample sizes for what was to come even if the coaches weren’t just going to hand him a job. He spent the spring repping as a backup bandit behind Ramson while still working as the nickel on occasion. But now it looks like his time working in the background is over and those 2022 sample sizes are about to turn into a full-course meal in 2023.

“Sonny is that guy we’re continuing to try and find ways to get him on the field to let him be a factor in the game,” Knowles said. “Plan on him being out there a lot.”

Styles adds a different dynamic to a defense that has long been trying to once again put players out on the field who are dynamic enough to be the answer to any sort of problem:

His instincts mean that in situations where maybe in the past Knowles would be open to putting a third linebacker on the field, he can instead stick to his base 4-2-5 formation.

His size makes him the perfect answer to covering a player like Georgia tight end Brock Bower, which is why they leaned on him in the College Football Playoff;His athleticism allows him to still keep up with receivers if needed, which played out on Day 1 when he was lined up against Marvin Harrison Jr. in the slot at times and more than held his own against the nation’s best receiver;And his instincts allow Knowles to stick to his 4-2-5 base defense instead of going to a third linebacker”You don’t see many 6-foot-4, 230-pound free safeties who can play as many positions as he can,” linebacker C.J. Hicks — Styles’ roommate and fellow former five-star recruit — said. “We put him at nickel. We put him at strong. We put him at free. We put him at sam, which is a linebacker. He probably could play jack. He’s very versatile.”

It’s always felt like the possibilities with Styles were endless in terms of what he could be, which is why he was such a significant get on the recruiting trail. As a high school prospect, he’d attend day camps where he’d work with practically every OSU position coach because he could’ve ended up playing any or all of those positions at some point.

Now that investment might start paying off this season as Knowles has the ultimate weapon to scheme a defense around. If you have a question of whether Styles has the capability of doing something, or if Knowles has, at the very least, thought about doing something with him, that has a clear answer.

“Yes,” Knowles said. “Don’t assume anything with Sonny. He’s extremely talented and he can do it all.”

Knowles is excited about what he might be able to do with Styles but also admitted there needs to be a balancing act in figuring out how much to give him and how quickly to do so. He’s still only a sophomore who should technically be entering his first fall camp as a true freshman.

He admitted that he wants to have flexibility among all three safety spots, which is partially how they landed on Ransom, Carter and Styles as a pairing. But you also want to make sure each has mastered their primary position before adding new things to their plate, which is even more emphasized with the young Styles.

“My job is to make sure that he is the best he can be,” Knowles said. “(I’m) constantly focusing on that. Not putting too much on him. You watch the film, put in a little bit and go back and forth to see where his best learning curve is.”

Knowles called Styles a secret weapon very early into their time together in Columbus. Doing so only added to the eagerness the rest of us had in finding out when he’d decided to implement that weapon into his defense. All they needed was a year together to make that happen as Styles has started to force his way on the field.

“Sonny’s out there because that’s where we want him (to be),” Knowles said.