CJ Hicks Ohio State Linebacker Buckeyes

CJ Hicks, Sonny Styles Give Buckeyes Options At Will Linebacker

The time is now for CJ Hicks. The time is also now for Sonny Styles. Perhaps it’s even time for both of them to be on the field at the same time.

There do not appear to be many holes on the defensive side of the ball for the 2024 Ohio State football team, but if one nit must be picked, it would be at the Will linebacker position.

Three-year starter Steele Chambers is off to the NFL, and now the job falls to a combination of Hicks and Styles. One of whom has yet to play much, and the other who was a safety for the first two years of his career.

Both CJ Hicks and Sonny Styles are juniors. Hicks has spent his first two years at Ohio State behind Chambers, while Styles spent his first two years at strong safety and nickel and a smidge of Sam linebacker. Styles had 12 starts last year as a true sophomore, but is starting over a bit now with the move to linebacker.

Last month, Ohio State linebackers coach James Laurinaitis said that he wanted to end spring practice by having at least four linebackers this defense can count on, and with the move of Styles to linebacker, that number seems to have become easier to attain.

“Yeah, we want put guys in position to be the most successful they can but also embrace it,” head coach Ryan Day explained after the first spring practice last Tuesday. “And Sonny is wanting to do whatever he can to help the team. And we know that his skill set, he is versatile, and we’re going to continue to work on that. But you will see him at linebacker. We’ll also see him do some other things as time goes on.”

The Plan This Spring

The Ohio State coaching staff believes that Styles will bring a lot to the defensive table because they’ve already seen it first hand. This spring will be about getting Styles comfortable at his new position, but it is also going to be an opportunity for defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and his staff to figure out some of the different things they can do with Styles at a new position.

“You know, it’s a change for Sonny because he’s playing in the box from a low position, instead of dropping in. So things happen a lot faster,” Knowles said on Thursday following practice No. 2. “But he’s reacted superbly. I mean, he’s a guy who’s got football intelligence. He understands the scheme. Played a lot of positions. I think he’s gonna be great because one of the biggest parts of being a linebacker is you have to know all the pieces around you so you can play fast. And Sonny has shown a lot of that in the first two days.”

The move is permanent, and it’s one that has always been seen as inevitable. Sonny Styles is 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, so the idea of having a safety who is as big as some defensive ends isn’t exactly realistic. He wasn’t always that heavy, of course, which is one of the reasons he started out at safety.

Knowles also had other things in mind for why Styles spent his first two years in the secondary.

“When I first met him, or when I first got here, I think everybody talks about, ‘he’s gonna be a linebacker, he’s gonna be a linebacker,’ but I really wanted to see him at safety first,” Knowles said. “That’s what he wanted to do. That’s what I wanted to see. I felt long term, in my vision for him, that playing safety early in his career was going to give him a better perspective of the defense.”

Knowles had a similar situation in his previous stop at Oklahoma State when he moved starting safety Malcolm Rodriguez to Will linebacker as a junior. Rodriguez started 15 games with the Detroit Lions as a rookie linebacker in 2022, so the proof of concept is there. Plus, it’s not an unusual move in college football as players get bigger during the course of their 3-5 years.

Planning Ahead

This move of course begs the question of what this means for CJ Hicks. Hicks has been waiting in the wings, and he’s been doing so carrying the weight of lofty expectations as a former five-star linebacker recruit.

But Jim Knowles isn’t worried. With fifth-year senior Cody Simon in the middle, there will also be opportunities for Styles and Hicks to play together in a three-linebacker set. Styles already has some experience as a Sam (strong side) linebacker, which was essentially what he played at times as OSU’s nickel last year. Hicks is now learning the Sam spot as well.

“Part of the time they are [competing at Will this spring],” Knowles said. “Part of the time we’ll have all three of them on the field, with Cody. So there’s balance there and they’re competing. And they also can be in the same package. CJ has got a great attitude. I’ve always felt that CJ has a lot of pressure on him being from Ohio. But he’s coachable and he understands growth and our plan for him, and he’s got a great attitude.”

Every linebacker in Knowles’ alignment needs to know more than one spot in case somebody goes down. If Cody Simon went down, then redshirt sophomore Gabe Powers would likely step in. But if Styles or Hicks went down, then they each also need to know both Will and Sam, so Hicks is getting some experience there as well.

“CJ is moving around,” Knowles said. “You get into a three linebacker package — Sonny, Cody and CJ, you’re pretty good. Right? But you can’t just have one guy. So if Sonny’s not there at the Sam, then CJ has got to know how to play it too so that you could bring Gabe in at Mike and Cody can play Will and you still have a great lineup. You always have to plan for, ‘Okay, we’ll start out this way. But who’s in next?’ So CJ has to know both positions too.”

There are obviously a ton of moving parts, but the one thing that both CJ Hicks and Sonny Styles excel at is moving around. The athleticism aspect of the job will never be an issue with either of them, but athleticism can run to the wrong hole just as quickly as it can run to the right hole.

In a year with championship aspirations like this one for the Buckeyes, the weak spots are going to get the most attention. Right now, Will linebacker is the biggest concern on the Ohio State defense, but Knowles is confident the Buckeye linebackers will be better than fine.

“Yeah, really confident,” he said. “I think adding Sonny into that mix, a guy who’s got a lot of experience, a lot of playing time, that really bolsters that position and that room. So, I’m confident in what we have there. Cody Simon is a guy who we think is going to be great and he’s really a leader of the defense. So I think it’ll be a strength.”

Go to discussion...

You might also like