COLUMBUS — In his first stint as a Buckeye starter, redshirt sophomore strong safety Malik Hooker had one of the top three "one-and-done" seasons in Ohio State football history, up there with running back Maurice Clarett in 2002 and receiver Terry Glenn in 1995. Technically, Hooker did play special teams in 2015, and Glenn did produce 15 catches in his first two seasons combined, but you get the idea. A considerable splash was made by all in their first significant opportunities.
Hooker was a consensus All-American this past season thanks to his 74 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, seven interceptions, and three interception returns for touchdowns. And now he is off to the NFL and the Buckeyes have a significant problem on their hands.
Who are the candidates? Every single defensive back on the roster, save for current starting defensive backs Damon Webb and Denzel Ward. A year ago at this time Webb was still a cornerback, so a lot can happen between now and April.
Rising senior Erick Smith was Hooker's backup this season and Tyvis Powell's backup in 2014, so he has more experience than anybody else vying for the job. There was a time when Smith was the future of the position. Can he be again?
Rising sophomore free safety Jordan Fuller could also get into the mix. Even though he prefers the man-coverage nature of the free safety position, he has the athleticism to play center field in this defense. Rising redshirt sophomore cornerback Damon Arnette was almost moved to safety last spring, but he remained at cornerback. Is he an option this year or is he too valuable as one of the Buckeyes' likely top three cornerbacks?
Rising junior Eric Glover-Williams was one of the top two safeties in the spring a year ago, but he was quickly overtaken by Webb and eventually fell out of the two-deep altogether. Hooker said a year ago that Glover-Williams is a natural playmaker, and we've seen him be a valuable special teams contributor, but can he be a starting strong safety?
There are the guys who came in last season in Wayne Davis, Rodjay Burns, and Jahsen Wint. Davis and Wint redshirted, while Burns played and saw time as OSU's No. 5 cornerback. We have yet to see what Wint can do. Burns has been thought by some to eventually be a safety. Davis is a cornerback or a free safety given his aggressive man-to-man skills, so he's not likely to be a candidate at strong safety.
There will also be five freshman defensive backs to think about, with Jeffrey Okudah, Shaun Wade, Isaiah Pryor, and Marcus Williamson all enrolling early. Cincinnati's Amir Riep will enroll in the summer, and is one of the safety candidates, along with Pryor (6-2 195). Many also like Okudah (6-2 197) at safety, though given his potential, his first look will likely be at cornerback. I think Williamson could eventually be a free safety at Ohio State in this defense. If you are wondering about another incoming possibility -- Brendon White -- he has already been moved to linebacker.
The group of strong safeties that the Buckeyes start camp with will not likely be the group they end with. There will be quite a bit of experimenting and finding out who can do what. Even though Hooker wasn't a returning starter, there was never really any doubt that he would be okay. He obviously turned out to be way more than just okay, but at this point there has been no heir apparent like there was when Tyvis Powell was on his way out. For that reason, spring football is going to be quite a revelation.
Erick Smith is the best bet given the fact that he is a senior and has gotten the most reps, despite being set back with injuries throughout his career. Smith came to Ohio State as an Army All-American and was arguably the best player on the field at cornerback in the 2014 edition of that All-Star game. Tyvis Powell said back in 2014 that the Buckeyes would be fine if he ever went down and Smith had to come in for him. Smith said in the spring of 2015 that he had a much greater understanding of the defense than he did as a freshman. That understanding has only grown.
Erick Smith will open and close the spring as the No. 1 at strong safety. Jordan Fuller will get a look there, as will Jahsen Wint and Isaiah Pryor. I hope Wint has calmed down as a player because he was a head-down wrecking machine in high school. Pryor isn't a free safety in this defense, I don't think, which makes him a strong safety. Fuller may be too busy trying to make a claim on the free safety spot to get too much work here. This is Erick Smith's job to win. Or lose.