In a star-studded 2022 recruiting class that featured potential difference-makers all across the field, no prospect with the exception of Sonny Styles arrived at Ohio State last year with more tantalizing talent and ability than linebacker C.J. Hicks. And now, after a year of finding his footing at the college level, Hicks is making a strong case to force himself onto the field when the Buckeyes kick off the 2023 season this fall.
A five-star recruit out of Dayton and the top-ranked linebacker in the country in the 2022 class, Hicks was a popular choice among many pundits to earn immediate playing time as a true freshman. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, his blend of size and speed lent itself to easy, albeit premature comparisons to former collegiate — and now professional — stars such as former Penn State and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons.
While Hicks’ role in the Ohio State defense never materialized last season, an impressive spring showing now begs the question of how defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and his staff can afford to keep him out of the linebacker rotation despite the return of veterans Tommy Eichenberg, Steele Chambers and Cody Simon.
Hicks’ talent was on full display during Ohio State’s annual spring game on April 15 when he recorded six tackles and a pair of pass breakups, including a near interception of Kyle McCord, while playing the most snaps of any defender in the absence of Eichenberg and Chambers, who both did not practice during the spring. Hicks’ effort was one of the undeniable performances that stood out on a day in which it can be difficult to extract true evaluations, making him a popular subject in the postgame press conference with head coach Ryan Day, who certainly took notice.
“He flashed more today,” Day said of Hicks. “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 both Jim (Knowles) and (graduate assistant) James (Laurinaitis) are doing a great job with him.”
Day wasn’t the only one to field questions about Hicks’ place in Ohio State’s defensive plans this upcoming season. Simon noted Hicks’ athleticism, an aspect of Hicks’ game that’s never been in question, but added it’s the progression he is seeing from Hicks mentally that was most apparent throughout spring practices.
“He’s a great athlete and can make any play he wants to make, but his biggest step forward has definitely been the mental side of the game, especially this spring,” Simon said following the spring game. “From the first practice to practice 15, he’s making so many more reads and is so much more communicative. He’s such a more mature player just from these 15 spring practices.”
Simon noted the stark contrast between being a high school star and finding success at the highest level of college football but added he can see Hicks’ willingness to do what is necessary to turn talent and potential into a well-rounded player who can help Ohio State win games.
“He’s always in the film room and he’s always trying to get extra help. He’s trying to be a cerebral player and he’s doing really well with it,” Simon added.
Should Hicks’ development continue at its current pace over the summer and into fall camp, there is little question Knowles will find a way to utilize his talents in some capacity this fall. Adding such talent to a linebacker group already boasting a first-team All-Big Ten performer in Eichenberg could make for one of the country’s premier defensive units, a possibility that is not lost on Simon.
“I don’t even know what the limit is,” he said of the group. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, lead the defense, we can be the best in the country. And that’s our goal. It’s always been our goal, to be the best.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.