Styles makes shift to linebacker


COLUMBUS — Speaking with reporters last month, newly promoted linebackers coach James Laurinaitis said the decision on Sonny Styles’ positional home was above him. On Tuesday, as Ohio State kicked off its 2024 spring practice schedule, the decision appeared to have been made as Styles spent all of the portion of practice open to the media, running with the linebackers group.

Styles has spent both of his first two seasons at safety, although his role in the Ohio State defense has, at times, mirrored that of a traditional outside linebacker. With the safeties room chalked full of proven talent following the arrival of Alabama transfer Caleb Downs and the return of Lathan Ransom, the shift to linebacker appears to be both the best way to fill a team need and the best way to utilize Styles’ combination of size and speed around the line of scrimmage.

“Sonny is dynamic in what he can do,” newly hired safeties coach Matt Guerrieri said last month. “He’s a unique combination of the ability to run, cover, tackle, mentality, and size. He has a lot of things and attributes. Without getting into specifics, we’re going to take a look at a number of different things for him to put him in the best position for him to be successful and for the team to be successful.”

After arriving on campus at 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds as a 17-year-old freshman in 2022, outgrowing the safety position was always likely for Styles. Knowles said on Thursday his plan for Styles was always at linebacker, but not before Styles gained what Knowles believes will be valuable experience at safety.

“I felt that long-term in my vision for him, playing safety early in his career was going to give him a better perspective of the defense,” Knowles said. “I had Malcolm Rodriguez, who is with the (Detroit) Lions, at Oklahoma State. Now, he’s about half of Sonny’s size, but he started as a safety. When he became a linebacker, he understood things a lot better. So my vision for Sonny was to start him out at safety and eventually move him down.”

Prior to the spring, fellow linebacker Cody Simon said the linebacker group had long joked with Styles about making the switch given that Styles was already larger than everyone in the room.

“For him, he can really play any position he wants,” Simon said. “He’s that dynamic of a player. Physically, it’s my job to just keep up with him because he’s the most athletic guy on the field. He’s a super talented player and he works really hard, too, so that goes really well together.”

The transition won’t be as difficult for Styles as it may be for others, considering how often he was in the box the last two seasons. His height still allows him to match up well with the tight ends he’ll find himself covering at times, and he’s already proven to be an asset in run support and blitz packages.

Still, Knowles knows there will be an adjustment period this spring for Styles as he finds his footing and takes on more mental responsibilities, though Knowles has no doubts Styles will excel in the role as he gains comfortability.

“It’s a change for Sonny because he’s playing in the box from a low position instead of dropping in, so things happen a lot faster,” Knowles said. “But he’s reacted superbly. He’s a guy who has football intelligence. He understands the scheme. He’s played a lot of the positions. I think he’s going to be great because one of the biggest parts of being a linebacker is you have to know all the pieces around you so you can play fast, and Sonny’s shown a lot of that in the first two days.”

As for the staying power Styles has at linebacker, Knowles said he believes the move to linebacker is permanent in the base and nickel packages of the Ohio State defense, but noted there will still be other packages that will allow Styles to retain “multiplicity.”

Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.

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