This is the fourth in a series looking at how the Buckeyes will be replacing their departed starters in 2024. Up next is a look at the Will linebacker position vacated by three-year starter Steele Chambers.
Steele Chambers spent his first two years as a Buckeye at running back, averaging 7.9 yards per carry on just 28 attempts. He made the move to linebacker prior to his redshirt sophomore year and quickly became one of the Buckeyes’ most disruptive defenders. He started the final four games for Ohio State in 2021, then all 13 games in 2022.
Chambers led the the Buckeyes with 83 tackles this past season, finishing his career with 208 total tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, three sacks, and four interceptions. He was a three-time Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection, though he was also voted Third-Team All-Big Ten by the media in 2023. Chambers also belongs to the rare club of Buckeyes who have scored on both offense and defense.
The first two years of CJ Hicks’ career were spent behind Steele Chambers, so with that impediment now out of the way, perhaps Hicks can finally begin to make his mark on the Ohio State defense. Now a rising junior, Hicks has just 14 career tackles to this point but has intriguing potential.
Gabe Powers was part of OSU’s 2022 recruiting class like Hicks, but he redshirted as a true freshman. Powers will likely end up at middle linebacker again for the Buckeyes, but defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is going to go with his two best linebackers and make it work.
A late arrival last fall, Nigel Glover redshirted and didn’t play in any games, but he brings the kind of athleticism and coverage skills that can work well at Will. Rising sophomore Arvell Reese is also a name to watch, but he could also end up at middle linebacker or defensive end.
Fifth-year senior Kourt Williams also returns following a lost season last year due to an injury. He made the move from safety to linebacker prior to last year but never really got to show what he could do. True freshmen Payton Pierce and Garrett Stover likely won’t be in the mix much this year, but there is room to impact a depth chart.
The final name to mention is rising junior Sonny Styles, who played strong safety, nickel back, and Sam linebacker last year. With the returns of starting strong safety Lathan Ransom and nickel back Jordan Hancock, along with the transfer to OSU of Freshman All-American safety Caleb Downs, perhaps it is time for Styles to move closer to the line of scrimmage full time.
Even with the influx of quarterbacks and the transfer of All-Everything safety Caleb Downs, the most-watched position this spring may actually be the Will linebacker. For one, the projection of Sonny Styles to Will is conjecture at this point. For two, Buckeye fans have been impatiently waiting for CJ Hicks to get his shot since he arrived early in 2022.
However things shake out this spring, this is going to be a position battle where reps are needed. Either the position is going to be manned by somebody relatively inexperienced and totally unproven, or it’s going to be somebody who is learning a new position. The learning curve will be larger than some other positions, but not so much as to be a worry. Yet.
Jim Knowles has said on several occasions that he needs to find ways to get CJ Hicks on the field. He’s also said that he’s capable of playing, which is great, but that playing time has been awfully hard to come by. The Steele Chambers roadblock is now gone, which should free Hicks up more than ever.
If Sonny Styles does not make the move and he keeps doing what he did last year, then Hicks is the logical next man up. But with the way Jordan Hancock played at nickel last year, would the defense be better with Styles somewhere else? And would that somewhere else be a full-time linebacker?
There is the potential for a large number of moving parts with this 2024 Ohio State defense, which could be a nightmare for opposing offenses to deal with provided Knowles and his staff put the right guys in the right spots at the right times.