Ohio State football finds depth and improvement in secondary in latest win

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State safety Ronnie Hickman tackles Michigan State tight end Tyler Hunt short of a first down in the Buckeyes' win Saturday.

Late in the first half of Ohio State’s win at Michigan State on Saturday, safety Ronnie Hickman burst toward Tyler Hunt, a tight end for the Spartans.

Hunt had caught a pass on third down, just past midfield, but before he could move ahead to gain two more yards for a first down, he was dragged to the grass by Hickman.

A redshirt freshman safety for the Buckeyes, Hickman stepped up last week, seizing more playing time in the secondary rotation in place of Josh Proctor, who was among 23 unavailable players.

Most of the time, he was on the field for third down, when the Buckeyes were in their nickel package, allowing for an extra defensive back to step onto the field. In those situations, Hickman lined up at a safety spot alongside Marcus Hooker and helped with some stops.

He logged a season-high 22 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, more than his previous four games this fall, expanding a role beyond special teams.

“In the era of COVID versatility, he is learning and is able to play both of our safety positions,” defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said.

Along with manning the role as a nickel safety, Hickman filled in for Hooker as the single high safety.

In both spots, he provided reliable coverage and was a disciplined tackler. He totaled three tackles at Michigan State and didn’t miss one.

But Coombs especially liked that he was able to line up at different safety positions. The secondary was thin prior to this season, a situation that left the development of talented underclassmen as critical for filling multiple spots.

Listed as 6 feet 1 and 205 pounds, Hickman was a former four-star recruit and the third-highest-ranked prospect in New Jersey in his 2019 class, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.

“He's a valuable guy for us, and he continues to develop,” Coombs said. “He's a big, fast guy. Our job is to coach them well and get them on the field and get them opportunities to play. But in the world that we're in right now, that's true for a lot of players. He just has to fit that role.”

In addition to finding some depth in the secondary at Michigan State, the Buckeyes’ coaching staff also saw some improvement from Hooker, a redshirt sophomore who has had the tall task of replacing Jordan Fuller this season.

Hooker gave up a 33-yard touchdown to Indiana wide receiver Ty Fryfogle in the previous game and has at times stood out for poor tackling, including missing four against Rutgers, according to Pro Football Focus.

But he was sharper against the Spartans, and the staff graded him as a champion.

“It was great for him, and it was great for us to be able to kind of hit the reset button there and feel comfortable and confident out there on the field,” Coombs said.

“I thought that was really important for Marcus and obviously really important for us going forward, that he was able to go out there and not just play, but play successfully within the structure of the defense.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman