CJ Hicks

James Laurinaitis Searching For (At Least) Four Linebackers This Spring

The Buckeyes are just a few days out from the start of spring practice. Tuesday will officially kick off the start of camp, and one of the goals at every position is to find and build enough depth to withstand what could be the longest season in Ohio State football history.

With the advent of the new 12-team College Football Playoff, a team will have to play in 16 or 17 games to win a national title. As such, depth will be more important than ever.

For Ohio State linebackers coach James Laurinaitis, he must replace his two starters from last year, as middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg and Will linebacker Steele Chambers are now off to the NFL.

Fifth-year senior Cody Simon returns, as do his 14 career starts. Third-year players CJ Hicks and Gabe Powers both finally have a clear shot at a starting spot, and sophomore Arvell Reese has a ton of promise.

Laurinaitis likes his options, but the results aren’t guaranteed yet.

“It’s a big spring for our guys,” he said. “With Cody and CJ and Gabe Powers and Arvell Reese, there’s a lot of guys that are gonna be fighting for playing time. I think Cody is really the only one with any starts under his belt. So it’s a big spring for a lot of our guys.”

Much of the attention at the moment is on Hicks, who is a junior, and Powers, who is a redshirt sophomore. Neither player saw much time on defense last year — Hicks got snaps in seven games defensively, while Powers saw defensive snaps in just two games.

It’s a difficult move from not playing much to possibly having to play in a regular rotation. What do they need to do to make that happen?

“They’ve just got to play,” Laurinaitis said. “And I think it all comes down to consistency. Consistency breeds confidence. So if you want to put your stake on a position, you got to do it day in and day out.”

Heading into spring ball, Laurinaitis wants to find at least four guys who he can count on this season, which is something that he couldn’t make happen last year.

“The vision that I have for our room is hopefully we come out of this spring to where we have at least four guys that have earned the right to play,” he said. “That’s my hope. And I don’t know if that’ll happen. But what I mean by that is I thought last year we had three guys that earned the right to play. I thought with the way Cody Simon prepared during the spring, and then in the fall, quite frankly, looking back, I wish I would have played Cody probably a little more last fall. He earned it.

“So I think when you look at it, it’s ‘Okay, do we have four players? Maybe five that can earn the right?’ Because I think if you play well enough, the season is gonna be really long with this 12-game playoff, so you’re looking at what, 16 games or something? So we’re gonna have to rotate, if we have the ability to. Now if only two guys show up and prove that they’re trustworthy, then two will play.”

Laurinaitis pointed to fellow assistant coach Brian Hartline’s situation with the Ohio State receivers where more than three guys are earning time, but also making each other better.

“Guys are constantly iron sharpening iron, trying to claw for the field and for playing time,” Laurinaitis said of the receivers. “My hope is that’s what we can have not only exiting the spring, but heading into fall camp.”

Hicks has been the focus of plenty of attention from the outside because of his former five-star status as a recruit and his plethora of physical abilities, but it’s going to take more than athleticism to get on the field. It’s going to take something else as well.

“I think just consistency, to be honest with you,” Laurinaitis said of Hicks. “CJ has all the potential in the world. He does. And I think sometimes he’s just got to cut it loose and go play. Honestly, I expect a big spring from CJ. I think with the way he has attacked the offseason workouts, the way he’s carried himself, I expect him to take a jump.”

Coaches are always quick to point out that everybody’s path is different and everybody is developed at their own speed, but there also comes a time when things begin to click, especially when there is an opportunity directly within reach.

“I think CJ has gotten to a point where hopefully this spring there’s a lot of growth,” Laurinaitis said. “And maybe some of that will come with just the fact that, ‘Hey, this position is for the taking,’ right? I think some guys thrive on that. And we’ll find out how he reacts to it, but I’m a big fan of CJ Hicks. I always have been because he has such a raw and rare kind of skill set to where physically he has so many traits that you love at the linebacker position.”

Powers may start the spring as the backup to Cody Simon at middle linebacker, but if he continues his strides, he may make a push for the open job at Will.

“Gabe Powers got significantly better from last spring, all the way through the fall and into the winter,” Laurinaitis said. “So as the season went on, you would notice him kind of making plays in practice routinely to where you’re like, ‘Okay, I think the light bulb is coming on for Gabe.'”

In the search for four linebackers he can trust, Laurinaitis at least knows which four he’s looking at first. Those won’t be only four, but with Hicks, Powers, and Arvell Reese, the biggest opportunity they’ve had as Buckeyes starts now.

“I can’t speak enough when you talk about those two, and talk about Arvell Reese, how big this spring will be for them,” Laurinaitis said. “Because it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to see who’s going to be in there alongside Cody Simon.”

Of course, there is another elephant in the linebacker room in the form of junior safety Sonny Styles. Styles played all over the place last year, spending time as a nickel, a Sam, and as a deep safety. The safety spots all seem to be in good hands, and with a linebacker job open, wouldn’t it make some sense to move Styles — and his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame — to where he will likely eventually play in the NFL?

“I think that’s a question probably above me,” Laurinaitis said. “But I think Sonny has such a rare skill set in the sense that you saw it some a little bit where he would play kind of the overhang last year, you didn’t really know what he was. Was this is a safety or is this more of an outside ‘backer, you know? Is he an old school Sam, to use those terms. He’s just so versatile.

“And so I think there’s a lot of different roles that we can put Sonny in to bring out the best in him. I think with his body, size, and his age, when you try to project him forward, he’s kind of in that [former Clemson safety/linebacker] Isaiah Simmons mix, if you remember that name, where you’re like, ‘What really is he? Is he a safety?’ He’s just a weapon. So I think that’s something that we have to evaluate this spring, where to put him to not only best suit what we want to do as Silver Bullets, but also what’s best for his future.”

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