Ohio State linebacker CJ Hicks finished with six tackles as a true freshman in 2022, which is about what he averaged in the first half of games as a high school senior.
Hicks played in 12 games this past season, but only on special teams. Hicks joined a linebacker room loaded with veterans, but it was also a defense that generally only fielded two linebackers at a time.
For the most part, those reps were ably handled by starters Tommy Eichenberg at middle linebacker and Steele Chambers at Will. For the first time in Hicks’ football life, not only was he not starting, but he wasn’t even playing.
It was an adjustment, but one that Hicks understood was necessary.
“Coming in, yes, I wanted to play, obviously,” Hicks said recently. “I don’t have a problem sitting down and watching my teammates ball out and do it. Put the best guys out there and ball out and do what’s best for the team. I’m not a selfish guy. I want to see all my guys eat.”
Every Year Is A Learning Process
Even when freshmen don’t realize it, they are still learning. They practice, they watch, and they improve. Hicks was a 5-star prospect from Archbishop Alter in Dayton who arrived with significant expectations. In his first season in Columbus, however, he never saw a snap on defense. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t learning along the way.
“This year has taught me be patient and wait, because throughout my whole life, I’ve been a starter every year,” Hicks said. “That includes my freshman year at Alter. So yeah, it just taught me patience and to be able to be a good teammate off the field and the same thing on the field.”
Obviously, patience isn’t the only thing a player needs to learn. If that’s all they learn, then that’s all they’ll show. Five years of patience and no playing time to show for it.
Patience is what you learn while you’re learning everything else, and he learned plenty as a freshman from his teammates.
“Having self confidence, especially Tommy, because Tommy has been through a lot and he’s one of the main guys that I go to talk to about anything,” Hicks said. “And it’s crazy because when I first got here I thought he didn’t like me. He’s just not a really talkative guy. He was my lifting partner when we first got here. I was trying to be talkative and get to know him and he was shutting it down because like I said he doesn’t really talk. When we were around each other, the more we opened up and I’m happy he’s in my life and I’m happy to have him as a teammate.”
Hicks wasn’t the first to discover Eichenberg’s quiet leanings, nor was he the first to realize not to take it personally. Fortunately, when Hicks was looking for a conversation, he still had Steele Chambers.
“Steele is my guy,” he said. “He definitely helps me out, especially since we’re both playing Will. He’s an older guy, so he is definitely showing me everything that I need to know.”
Success Through Coaching
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day brought in Jim Knowles as the Buckeyes’ new defensive coordinator last year. CJ Hicks was never recruited by Knowles and didn’t know how he would fit into Knowles’ scheme. But he didn’t panic. He was patient, he listened, and he also asked questions.
Over the course of the year, Hicks grew as a player.
“He definitely helped me become more of a true linebacker,” Hicks said of Knowles. “Because in high school I played corner, I played safety, nickel, linebacker, came off the edge a little bit, but he’s definitely helped me become a true linebacker and understand the defense a lot more.”
Hicks’ athleticism and versatile skill set is an intriguing page of writing in the rough draft of the 2023 defense. The editing process will begin this spring, and the man with the red pen will be brand new graduate assistant James Laurinaitis.
Laurinaitis was a three-time All-American linebacker at Ohio State from 2006-2008, and then he spent the better part of a decade in the NFL, so he’s seen some things. What he’s seen from CJ Hicks to this point is just the start, but it’s already extremely promising.
“I mean, just a ton of talent. Unbelievable movement skills,” Laurinaitis said last week. “Looks the part, and just really excited to get to know him and continue to work with him. Because you can see the talent there. I mean, it just pops on the field and the way he moves, and just watching them run today was was impressive. So there’s a lot of facets to playing linebacker. But when you looked at all the guys and you’re like, ‘man, yeah, he’s an impressive looking kid.’ And so I’m excited to get to work when spring ball starts.”