There is likely to be a point in Ohio State’s season opener at Indiana this year when sophomore linebacker CJ Hicks sees a snap on defense. And when he does, it will be the first of his career.
Hicks played in every game last year, save for the season opener against Notre Dame, but saw all of his action on special teams. It wasn’t the freshman season that the former 5-star linebacker prospect expected, but it’s the one that he got.
Snaps were hard to come by for other linebackers as well, as the Buckeyes’ defense mainly fields just two at a time, and those two turned out to be Second-Team All-American Tommy Eichenberg and Honorable Mention All-Big Ten linebacker Steele Chambers, both of whom were returning starters.
“In our system, those two linebackers, if you watch, they did everything,” explained defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. “I mean, they’re inside, they’re outside, they’re covering tight ends, blitzing. They’ve shifted one way or another. I think that’s our advantage. So there’s really a lot to those two positions. And it’s just a lot to learn, and I think coming out of high school, it is a hard transition.”
This spring, Hicks is currently working behind Chambers, but getting plenty of snaps throughout every practice. The work this spring has obviously helped build his confidence, but his time on special teams last year has given him the kind of experience that has allowed him to make the most of his opportunities this spring.
“It helps a lot for sure, building experience,” Hicks admitted. “But not even just for me, but other guys in my class. It builds confidence in yourself, what you need to do, but then you’ve got to go out there and execute.”
Hicks wasn’t alone in learning Knowles’ defense last year. It was new for everybody, but for the freshmen it was almost overwhelming. Now that he’s on hand for a second spring, CJ Hicks has seen a difference in his play.
“Not thinking as much and just going, for sure,” he said. “When I first got up here, I didn’t want to be wrong. I didn’t want to go to the wrong gap. Now, if I’ve got the wrong gap, then I’ve got to make the play. I just gotta go.”
That is not to say that Hicks shoots a gap first and then asks questions later. The intent is to know the defense well enough to where there are no more questions. The elimination of doubt is the key, and in year two, things are picking up.
“I’m very comfortable,” Hicks said. “Especially knowing all the plays. We’re just reviewing everything right now. But knowing everything that we’ve put in last year, and knowing later on in the season everything started to click for me. Now just building off of last year. Being the best me that I can be and being the best linebacker that I can be as well.”
Hicks hasn’t actually been a linebacker all that long. He spent the first half of his high school career in the secondary and gradually moved closer to the line of scrimmage each year. By the end of his four years at Kettering Alter, he was as effective in coverage as he was coming off the edge or blitzing the A gap.
Now in his second season and with an entrenched starter in front of him, Knowles is thinking about other ways to get Hicks involved.
“CJ can really do whatever he sets his mind to. He is that good of an athlete,” Knowles said. “So we are continuing to work with him on the basic fundamentals of being a linebacker in a 4-2 scheme, right? That’s different than being an outside linebacker or a rush end. So he’s learning and getting better every day. But I think we can target him other places, too.”
One of those other places could be the hybrid linebacker/defensive end “Jack” position. Last year it was manned by sophomore defensive end Jack Sawyer, but this year Knowles has targeted fourth-year junior Mitchell Melton as his pick. Melton is currently being held out from contact this spring so has not been able to show his pass-rush skills in real time, but don’t be surprised to see Hicks getting some time there come fall camp.
“CJ is a guy who has such great athletic ability and speed,” Knowles said. “I think if I can direct him more, and not have him read as much but attack more, I think he can be a real threat to that position.”
Of course, for Hicks, being directed in that kind of fashion wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for him. His last year or two of high school was basically “see ball, get ball” and he was damn good at it.
“I feel like I can be a good player at the Jack,” Hicks said. “You know, in high school I rushed the passer a lot. But it’s up to Coach Knowles and his defense.”
Even at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Hicks isn’t worried about going against guys a hundred pounds heavier. He is confident in his ability to create havoc.
“Yeah. 100%. 100%,” he said. “I feel like I can get to the quarterback for sure.”
This is going to be a productive spring for CJ Hicks, which could lead to a productive sophomore season. Whatever Knowles has in store for Hicks, he believes he can handle.
“Me personally, I feel like I am ready,” he said. “But I’m gonna trust coach Knowles and whatever his decision is.”