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Football: Ohio State still eyeing the field for a safety

Ohio State then-freshman safety Isaiah Pryor (14) takes down UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers in the third quarter of the Ohio State- UNLV game on Sep. 23. Ohio State won 54- 21. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

There’s safety in numbers.

Or at least, there should be.

Ohio State has an opening in its defensive backfield at the field safety position opposite junior safety Jordan Fuller. Despite having three people competing for the position, head coach Urban Meyer said he views the position battle as the No. 1 concern for his team exiting spring practices because no one has made any noticeable separation to this point.

“We’re just not quite sure who that is,” Meyer said after the Spring Game. “[Defensive coordinators Greg] Schiano and Alex Grinch, we’re going to meet probably next Wednesday and they’re going to give me a depth chart and we’ll go from there.”

One of the many positions vacated by a senior from last season, safety has not been a major debate for Ohio State in past seasons. Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, both now in the NFL, held the roles in 2015. Damon Webb and Malik Hooker were viewed as the clear starters in the 2016 season, and while Fuller split snaps with Erick Smith across the field from Webb in 2017, Fuller soon overtook Smith.

Now, there’s three players — sophomores Isaiah Pryor and Brendon White, as well as redshirt sophomore Jahsen Wint — battling against one another for the opening. Pryor, the No. 8 safety in the 2017 recruiting class according to 247Sports composite rankings, entered the spring considered by many to be the favorite to grab the position.

Meyer said on March 26 those were the only three competing for the spot, but also suggested freshmen Marcus Hooker — Malik’s younger brother — and Josh Proctor could put themselves into the fight as well.

Almost three weeks after that, Schiano still refused to rule those two players out.

“Around here, there’s no freshman, sophomore, junior. I mean, if you’re the best guy, you’ll play,” Schiano said after the Spring Game. “There’s a guy by the name of Hooker too that’s coming to town. Who knows? Somebody in his family played that position pretty well.”

Hearing the coaches talk about the position battles for the upcoming year, it becomes apparent that the second safety position could be the last decided on defense. The coaching staff appears to have several players in mind for the two linebacker openings.

But safety, a position that had an early frontrunner in Pryor, now might not have an answer until the end of the summer.

“I know we [won’t] come out of spring with a clear-cut guy,” Schiano said. “The competition will continue into training camp and I’m confident we’ll have two guys that start that game that will be game-ready. It’s developing depth behind it that will be the challenge.”

It remains to be seen how that depth will shake out. Even if Pryor separates himself from the rest of the pack, it is unknown how White and Wint will be as backup options.

White was burned several times in coverage during Saturday’s Spring Game. And while Wint appeared to have a solid Spring Game performance, he is the only former three-star recruit of the group. There also is four-star safety Amir Riep, who despite coming in with lofty expectations, has not been mentioned as someone ready to start.

Part of what has made Ohio State successful in the past with developing young members of the secondary was the ability to plug incoming freshmen onto special teams and have them gain in-game experience while waiting for their chance to shine.

If Meyer’s concern over the group of safeties is warranted, some of the freshmen might be in a position where one injury could force them to play meaningful snaps, which is a less-than-ideal situation.

But Schiano did not seem worried after the Spring Game.

“I do feel we have guys that can play, but you would always like — it’s cleaner if you come out with a guy that established himself,” Schiano said. “It’s not that none of them show things. They did. It’s just none of them showed it that much more than the other that you can say, ‘That’s the guy.’”

Regardless of if the talent necessitates the concern, it is not an optimal position for Ohio State. The Buckeyes will leave spring camp unsure who even the top two people are at a key position on the defense.

Ohio State’s track record of developing players in the defensive backfield should provide belief that the void will be filled.

There is typically safety in numbers. Yet, Ohio State will find more safety if it can narrow that number down to one sooner rather than later.

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