What Caleb Downs’ transfer commitment means for Ohio State’s football defense
COLUMBUS, Ohio – By capitalizing on a second chance, Ohio State football put the finishing touch on what should be a historic defense this fall.
Caleb Downs, whose freshman season at Alabama nearly exceeded the expectations created by his stats as a five-star, top-10 prospect, committed to Ohio State University out of the transfer portal on Friday night. The Buckeyes missed out on that great first season, falling short in a tight recruiting battle against the best coach to ever do it.
Nick Saban moved into retirement, and Downs made a late transfer to Columbus. While some questions remain about OSU’s offense, the one unanswered question regarding the defense is whether this group will now challenge Georgia’s 2021 team as the best in the modern history of the sport.
Describing this defense without exaggeration becomes more difficult with each return and addition. Ohio State dropped a guy widely viewed as a future first-round NFL draft pick on the back end of a defense already loaded with future positives.
The secondary did not need Downs to excel next season. Seven of the eight defensive players who considered leaving for the NFL Draft returned. Only Michigan scored more than two goals against OSU last season, and there may not be a talented team on the schedule this fall.
With Downs, dominance becomes the primary expectation. What the Buckeyes did last season wasn’t far off. Meanwhile, a few hundred miles south, Downs was busy hanging out with the SEC champs who led national champion Michigan to overtime in the playoff semifinals.
Downs played free safety for Alabama, which happened to be one of the few positions in which OSU did not return a starter. Josh Proctor wrapped up his eligibility with a strong sixth season, and Malik Hartford, who showed great promise as a true freshman, and Jehad Carter, in his second season after transferring from Syracuse, were expected to compete for that spot.
But Hartford didn’t show up the way Downs did. His 107 tackles led all freshmen. He added three pass breakups and two interceptions. Additionally, Pro Football Focus credited him with 13 coverage stops, which ranked fifth nationally, and named him a first-team All-American.
At 6-0, 203, Downs brings a physical presence and tremendous range. He played everywhere on offense in high school, including center. The tackling numbers prove his desire and ability to get involved in the run, but he was also a playmaker.
Athletic bloodlines are strong. His father, Gary, played six seasons in the NFL as a running back. His uncle, Dre Bly, was a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback. His brother Josh totaled 771 yards and two touchdowns in his rookie season with the Colts.
Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles refers to the free safety in his system as the setter, given that guy’s responsibilities to make alignment corrections based on offensive formations. With his talent and experience looking like a good fit there, OSU might have the best scenario for all three starting safeties.
Lathan Ransom returns for season 3 as the Bandit (strong safety Knowles). He competes to be the strongest player on the field. Eager to make big plays but also strong in coverage against bigger bodies, Ransom already looks like a pro.
Jordan Hancock started his career as a cornerback and still has the coverage skills to hang in there. However, he has also shown that he can handle the nickel responsibilities and is physical enough to play running back as well. He shared this job with Sonny Styles until Ransom’s late-season injury pushed Styles to the Bandits.
Maybe the ‘Noles decide that sharing time again at nickel yields the best results, but that means limiting two of their top 11 defensive players to part-time duty. Adding Downs could give OSU complete freedom to move Styles to linebacker, where his 6-4, 230-pound frame wouldn’t need much additional size to accommodate him.
With cornerbacks Denzel Burke and Davison Igbinosun alongside all of the above, this was really going to compete to be the best secondary in the country. Ohio State allowed the fewest yards per pass attempt in the country last season, and ranked second in opposing quarterback rating. The nine touchdown passes allowed were more than co-leaders Michigan and Notre Dame.
Downs may now be the best player on this defense. Some of the Buckeyes’ offensive linemen might object to that, because they may also be the best defensive line in the country. Burke may also object.
After what Downs did as a freshman, they’ll all have to prove it when spring practice begins.