Sophomore linebacker CJ Hicks finished Saturday’s Ohio State spring game with six tackles, one tackle for loss, and two pass breakups. Hicks flashed several times throughout the game, giving everybody a glimpse of his 5-star recruiting past.
Hicks played in 12 games last year, posting six total tackles, but all of his snaps came via special teams. Saturday’s spring game was the first time Buckeye fans had gotten to see Hicks play any defense since the previous year’s spring game where he tallied seven tackles.
Hicks’ playing time last year was hindered by a number of realities. One, the Buckeyes were installing a new defense under defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. Two, Knowles’ system really only plays two linebackers, which cuts into the number of possible snaps for the entire room. Three, there was already an established and productive starter at Hicks’ Will linebacker position. And four, freshmen all have their own particular timeline.
With Chambers out of the picture due to an injury over the two weeks or so of spring practice, linebacker coach James Laurinaitis put Hicks with the ones, and he’s been producing.
Following Saturday’s spring game, Buckeye head coach Ryan Day was asked about his defensive line, but the answer he gave was a message to every player on the team, including CJ Hicks.
“This is about being able to consistently do it,” he said. “When you flash — when we say, ‘he flashed,’ what does that mean? That means he’s done it once or twice; you’ve seen him do it. It’s like coming home with an A in algebra. Then you’re expected to come home with an A in algebra all the time. Can’t come home with a C. So that’s what we’re looking for. And that’s what separates good from great players, it’s being able to do it all the time.”
So when Day was asked if CJ Hicks’ play on Saturday was more about “consistency” or “flashing,” Day created a new classification.
“I’m gonna put a new category in there,” Day said smiling. “He flashed more today. We’re still looking for that consistency, but you’re starting to see it more and more. He’s making plays, he’s showing up. And I think Jim and James are both doing a great job with.”
A Witness For The Defense
Day isn’t alone in seeing Hicks showing up more and more. Senior middle linebacker Cody Simon has been playing next to Hicks throughout camp and has seen the improvement first hand.
“Definitely, when he first got here, his athleticism and his aggressiveness were top level,” Simon said of Hicks as a freshman. “He is a great athlete. Can make any play he wants to make. Definitely his biggest step has just been the mental side of the game. Especially this spring, from first practice to 15, he’s making so many more reads and he’s so much more communicative. Just such a more mature player just in these first 15 practices.”
Hicks has always been a natural playmaker, like most high school linebackers. But it takes more than that to be a productive college linebacker.
“The game is so much more different from college to high school,” Simon said. “In high school, success is just kind of running around, playing. When now you have to know why you do everything. And so for him, this mental side of the game, he’s always in the film room. Always getting extra help. He’s trying to be a cerebral player and he’s doing really well.”
Seeing the improvement first hand for the last 16 months or so, Simon beams like a proud older brother.
“I’m proud of him because it’s hard,” he said. “None of this stuff is easy to do. Especially against our offense, they give us so many different looks, and he’s making plays out there. You saw him. He had a really great game today. I’m just proud of him.”
Just A Gamer?
The fact remains that the Buckeyes return starting linebackers Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers, and Cody Simon is the No. 3 who can play either of the two linebacker spots when called upon. The depth chart isn’t in CJ Hicks’ favor, but the more consistent he gets, the more he will legitimately push for playing time on defense.
Jim Knowles has also discussed Hicks getting some reps at his hybrid Jack position this season. That option makes sense for a guy who seems to have a way of finding the football. But all of it will depend on Hicks practicing well, because the one thing that Day won’t buy into is a guy who is a “gamer” more than a “practicer.”
“I mean, I know what you’re saying,” he said. “I don’t know, really as much as we practice, if being a gamer really exists. I mean, certainly some guys can handle playing in games better than others. But if you don’t practice well, it’s hard to play well. And what we saw in practice is what we saw in the game today.”