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Ohio State safeties know they have big shoes to fill

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State safety Josh Proctor (41) reacts after missing a chance at an interception in a 2019 game at Indiana.

Jordan Fuller was an overlooked player at times last year for Ohio State, which is not an insult for a safety.

The Buckeyes mostly used Fuller as their sole safety, and the 10 players in front of him made so many plays that Fuller often didn’t have to. But he also seldom made a big mistake and his experience and intelligence made him the leader of that talented secondary.

Fuller earned a starting job with the Los Angeles Rams after slipping to the sixth round of the NFL draft, and the Buckeyes are still trying to settle on a replacement. Josh Proctor and Marcus Hooker are battling, and safeties coach Matt Barnes indicated Wednesday that they are likely to share the job at least at the start of the season.

“I think they've got a little bit different skill set, which I think is a good thing,” Barnes said on a conference call. “Situationally, one skill set versus the other allows us to be a little bit more multiple where we need to be and play them in some different spots.”

Proctor has been lauded for his potential since his arrival two years ago. The Oklahoma native has man-to-man coverage skills, and at 6 feet 2 and 202 pounds, Proctor has the size and aggressiveness to play closer to the line of scrimmage in run support.

But Barnes, who works alongside defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs with the defensive backs, wants Proctor to be more consistent.

“To me, that means focus on little details,” Proctor said. “Sometimes I get ahead of myself. I get kind of jittery back there. I'm kind of everywhere, but he just wants me to calm down and actually read plays and relax back there sometimes.”

Proctor was beaten in coverage on the final two plays of Clemson’s game-winning touchdown drive in the College Football Playoff semifinal.

“For me, yes, it's definitely stuck (with me),” he said. “I go back and watch that game quite a bit actually because I feel like we should have won that game. It got away from us. Oh, yeah, I think it really motivated me.”

Hooker, a third-year sophomore from Pennsylvania, played primarily on special teams last year.

“When I think of Marcus Hooker, I think of a true center fielder,” Barnes said. “I think of a really rangy player that's instinctive and has, I would go as far as to say, freakish ball skills. He really tracks the ball well and does a great job of going to get it. He (also) runs the alley real well for us in the run game.”

If that sounds like Marcus’ brother Malik, well, Ohio State would be quite pleased with that. Hooker was a breakthrough star in 2016 before becoming a first-round draft pick by Indianapolis.

Hooker said that he and Proctor are close friends. They view themselves more as teammates than competitors.

“Josh has many things that I can't do,” Hooker said, “and I have many things that he can't do.

“We just play ball, really. We don't really worry about the rotation or what coach has planned for us.”

What Ohio State would like most is for Hooker and Proctor, in whatever combination, to provide Fuller’s steady presence.

“Jordan was probably the most unsung hero last season,” coach Ryan Day said. “So that was a big, big void there that we need to get filled.”

Day said Hooker and Proctor, as well as freshmen Bryson Shaw and Lathan Ransom, have played well in practices leading up to the Oct. 24 opener against Nebraska.

“It’s hard to get a real feel for it until we get on the field and play that first game,” Day said. “But they have improved, and Kerry is doing a great job with them.

“They've shown flashes and they're really striving this week to be a little more consistent. But overall, (I’m) pleased with what we've seen.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch