For three years, safety Jordan Fuller was the staple that held together Ohio State’s secondary.
The two-time captain finished No. 3 or better in tackles for three consecutive years for the Buckeyes, intercepting five passes and breaking up 10 more along the way. He was named second team All-Big Ten in 2018 and first team All-Big Ten in 2019.
His eligibility exhausted, Fuller is on to greener NFL pastures. A clear, capable candidate has already emerged to survey the Buckeyes’ defensive backfield from his free safety spot, however: sophomore Josh Proctor.
“He has so much talent,” Fuller said. “His progression from when he first got here — he’s just a completely different player, completely different demeanor, everything.”
Fuller’s role in Proctor’s development has been incalculable.
The New Jersey native’s name came up unprompted from Proctor, who said the on-field action slowed down for him in 2019 because of Fuller’s tutelage. Not only that, but Fuller was always there off the field when Proctor needed to talk.
Proctor said Fuller showed him the importance of fine-tuning the smaller, individual points that compose his overall game.
“[He taught me] to focus. Focus on little stuff. Little stuff makes big plays,” Proctor said.
Making the game slow down is all about a safety’s preparation, Fuller said. If a player visualizes something in practice through multiple repetitions, it doesn’t catch him by surprise when he sees it in a game.
“It’s not hard to focus during the game. Focusing the whole week is the real challenge,” Fuller said.
Proctor showed small rewards of that focus this past season.
As Ohio State’s defense utilized him more and more, he collected 13 tackles with three pass breakups and an interception in spotted defensive reps and special teams play.
His growth process culminated in the final play of the Big Ten Championship Game, during which Proctor prevented a Wisconsin touchdown run from junior quarterback Jack Coan, laying a clean shoulder-to-chest hit that cracked the scrambling gunslinger backward.
“I saw him drop back. I was in coverage, just a freelance,” Proctor said. “I saw him take off running. Coach told us, ‘Don’t let them get in the end zone.’ I saw him try to cut upfield, and I just lowered my shoulder.”
Fuller and former co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley have been impressed with Proctor’s progression. The latter gave a list of week-to-week improvements Proctor made during the campaign.
“[He’s] understanding the scheme more, [having better] practice habits, doing the right thing in the classroom, doing the right things off the field, just growing as a person,” Hafley said. “He’s maturing. He’s doing better in school. He’s doing all the little things that we ask him to do, and when that happens — it’s crazy to always say this — but that leads to the football field.”
Before he potentially replaces Fuller in 2020, Proctor said there’s one final skill he’d like to further hone.
“My football IQ,” Proctor said. “Learning the game a little more. Staying in the meeting room and studying film as much as I can.”
Football IQ is something Hafley said he hopes all his players enhance. As a coach, it’s one of the top things on which he instructs his athletes: knowledge of the game.
He added that Proctor has improved a great deal in that area.
“Every day in the meeting room, you watch film, you talk football, you show them the ‘why,’” Hafley said. “That’s where he’s grown. So it’s cool to hear him say that.”
With redshirt sophomore cornerback Shaun Wade the only returning starter in the secondary for 2020, the Buckeyes will be searching for players who can solidify its pass defense.
Proctor said he’s ready for the challenge.
“It took me longer to get used to than I thought it would, but I feel like I’ll be alright,” Proctor said. “I know what I can do, and I know my focus has changed.”