The photo above is of Malik Hooker, who arguably had the greatest single season for an Ohio State safety in school history.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2016, Hooker finished third on the team with 74 tackles and seventh on the team with three touchdowns. He also happened to lead the Big Ten with seven interceptions, and his 181 return yards were the most in the Big Ten since Iowa’s Tyler Sash had 203 return yards in 2009.
Those 181 return yards on seven interceptions also put Hooker at 10th on the team in all-purpose yardage in 2016.
His ability to find the football and then find the end zone is what so many people will remember, but it was his ability to do everything else as well that separated him from all the rest.
When Ohio State is recruiting safeties, they are first looking for somebody like Malik Hooker because there was nothing he couldn’t do.
“You have to be able to play both man-to-man and be a great zone player,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano explained. “The prototype was obviously Malik. He was able to do both of those things and was phenomenal at the zone part, just as good as I’ve been around. So you look for that in guys.”
Hooker was able to cover more ground than the vast majority of safeties in college or professional football. If the Buckeyes can stack their roster with safeties like him, they would be ecstatic on a weekly basis.
And while that is essentially impossible both scientifically and mathematically, that doesn’t stop the OSU coaches from looking for those characteristics.
“There’s certainly a high standard here,” Schiano said. “There’s Vonn Bell, there’s Malik Hooker, there’s a high standard that Ohio State safety play in the recent past has been. So that’s who those guys are judged against.”
Being judged against Bell and Hooker last year was Jordan Fuller, and he was found to be worthy of that standard. There are All-American expectations attached to him this season, and the coaching staff has no worries where Fuller is concerned.
Next to him, however, there is still a looming question. And whoever that eventual safety partner might be — Isaiah Pryor or Amir Riep or Jahsen Wint or Brendon White or Marcus Hooker or Josh Proctor — could also determine where Fuller ends up.
Last year, Fuller replaced Hooker at strong safety. This year, he was slated to replace Damon Webb at free safety. Clearly he has the ability to cover man-to-man as well as zone that Schiano wants.
Not having things settled at the other safety, however, is going to be one of the stories to watch in fall camp.
“You’d certainly rather know, but you can’t force things, and I’ve made that mistake before over the years,” Schiano said. “You’ve got to let things play out and eventually someone will separate. If they don’t, then you play multiple guys.”
The Buckeyes ran into that same situation last year and things ultimately worked out.
“If you remember the beginning of last season, Jordan and Erick Smith were splitting reps and then Jordan pulled away and separated,” Schiano said. “So foreseeably could that be what happens? Maybe. Maybe somebody wins the job in training camp. We’re going to have to wait and see.”
Ultimately, if the Buckeyes hit their mark when recruiting these players, it shouldn’t even matter who wins the job. If they found what they were looking for, then things will work out just as well as they did a year ago.