Every athlete that comes to Ohio State to play football deals with expectations. Whether it’s expectations from friends, family, neighbors, fans, coaches, or self, it all applies, and it all compiles.
Those expectations have been ramped up even more for Ohio State sophomore linebacker CJ Hicks. Hicks was a 5-star prospect and the No. 1 linebacker in the 2022 recruiting class. Both of those labels create expectations. What they don’t create, however, is playing time.
Hicks saw time on special teams for the Buckeyes in their final 12 games last year, but never saw a single snap on defense. That’s not exactly what you would expect from the No. 1 linebacker prospect in the nation, but with the Buckeyes now employing a two-linebacker scheme — and having veteran depth at the position — defensive snaps did not happen for either Hicks or his fellow true freshman Gabe Powers.
This spring, however, both Hicks and Powers were making plays and looking like they belonged. Speaking with reporters a few weeks back, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles couldn’t say enough good things about Hicks. This then begged the question of whether Hicks should have seen some time on defense last year.
“No, not necessarily. I think CJ is right where he should be,” Knowles said.
The follow-up question was if Hicks has been set back by not playing defensively last year.
“No, no. CJ has soaked it all in, learned from it,” Knowles said. “I know everyone wants to see the highly recruited guys play right away, but as coaches you prefer to let a guy kind of grow a little bit.”
It sure sounds like that growth has taken place. Even though most of the spring practices were closed, everyone saw Hicks make plays in the spring game. Those 15 practices are part of the reason why Knowles is feeling pretty good about his sophomore linebacker.
“CJ is a guy who I’m predicting sometime this season, we’re gonna see him really unleash,” he said. “And the good thing is he’s not pressed into service because of the veterans in front of him, and I think that’s helped him to be able to play more relaxed. But at some point this year, we’ll be able to see CJ’s athletic ability. I think he’s just on the cusp of breaking out.”
But it wasn’t just the practices that caught Knowles’ eye.
“Well, you see it in everything,” he said. “I mean, you just see it in how he learns, how he’s able to articulate the defense and his assignment, how he does across the board in the classroom and everything. And just being on time, not just being present at the workouts but being a leader. So he’s had a really good offseason.”
The Buckeyes return their top three linebackers from last year in middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, Will linebacker Steele Chambers, and Cody Simon, who has starting experience at both of those positions. That will make playing time difficult to find, which is also one of the reasons why Knowles has plans to use Hicks in a disruptive Jack role as a roving linebacker/pass rusher.
Knowles has plenty of ideas and plans, but when the time comes, he’s going to have to remove somebody from the field that he trusts in order to get Hicks’ playmaking potential on the field.
“Absolutely. I think that is up to me,” he said. “It’s a great question because it’s up to me to find some time, some things that he can do in the Jack type of game, and also in those situations where we have the opportunity for him to play. Whether that’s through a rotation, me just saying, ‘Hey, I’m gonna get him in every so often.’ Because to move along a guy’s progression, he’s got to get plays. So it’s either me defining a role for him within the game plan, creating a substitution where I know I’m going to put him in no matter what or what the score is, or in those situations where it’s a second-half situation and he can really play a lot.”
Now that Knowles is off the road recruiting, he will spend much of his time coming up with plans for ways to utilize all of his players. He said he will be “constantly tinkering and looking at things.” That will include trying to decide how much Hicks can handle outside of what he already knows, which is a learning process for both player and coach.
“We have to have confidence in our game, based on practice, because we don’t have many games,” Knowles explained. “It’s not like another sport where you can have exhibition games. And so you have to have confidence based on practice. So if a guy shows you things in practice, then you give him an opportunity in the game. And if he shows you things in the game, you give him more opportunities. It’s that easy.”
Having done this for a long time now, and seeing how Hicks has handled the offseason, Knowles has his suspicions on how things are going to go.
“I think CJ has made all the progress necessary to put him in that position to get plays in the real game,” he said.
“The more that CJ can play, the more it helps us over the long haul.”