Few problems are better to have for a coach than needing to find ways to get talented players on the field, something Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is trying to address with sophomore linebacker and former five-star recruit C.J. Hicks this preseason.
After a strong showing in spring practice, capped off by one of the better performances in the team’s spring game in April, Hicks is continuing to prove he’s simply too talented to remain on the sidelines. But with all three of Ohio State’s top performers at the position returning, playing time may again been hard to come by for Hicks in a traditional linebacker role.
To solve the quandary, Knowles is getting creative with Hicks’ impressive blend of size and speed by utilizing him in the hybrid Jack role designed for players who are capable of both dropping into coverage and rushing the passer. In his first season at the helm of the Buckeye defense a year ago, Knowles experimented with defensive end Jack Sawyer at the position. The experiment yielded mixed results that ultimately led to Sawyer returning to a full-time role as a pass rusher this offseason, and Knowles temporarily shelved the position during the spring as he looked to identify the proper fit.
Now, Hicks appears to be the fit Knowles has been looking for as he continues to install more elements of the complex scheme that brought him success during his time at Oklahoma State. Speaking with the media following Thursday’s practice, Knowles said his intention of finding ways for Hicks to impact games hasn’t wained, as is evident in his experimentation with Hicks at the Jack position.
“I think my plans have been pretty strong about C.J. the whole time,” Knowles said. “He has had a great offseason and continues to improve. He’s going to play at Will (linebacker), he’s going to play in Jack, and we’re just going to always look for ways to get him in the game. That’s on me to find those opportunities.”
During the spring, Knowles and defensive line coach Larry Johnson both agreed that allowing Sawyer to focus fully on his craft as a pass rusher was in his best interest. Asked on Thursday if there are any concerns about stunting Hicks’ development as a pure linebacker by trying to fill a hybrid role, Knowles dismissed any such issues and noted Hicks has been fully on board with the decision in their previous discussions.
“I’ve already talked to him and he’s excited to do it because you don’t have to read much at that position. You just have to go and attack, so you just have to tell him what to do and he goes and does it,” Knowles said.
Hicks echoed his coach’s comments, noting the versatility required to play the Jack suits his abilities well and will showcase his full skillset.
“I can just get out there on the field and play,” he said. “I feel like the Jack can show how versatile I am knowing I can come off the edge, but also am able to still drop back and play Will as well. It just shows I can play multiple spots on the field.”
Hicks added, “If you turn on my high school tape, it’s similar to what I did in high school.”
To develop his tools as a pass rusher, Knowles said Hicks will spend increasingly more time under the tutelage of Johnson during practices this preseason. Whatever his role ultimately is when the season kicks off on Sept. 2, Hicks said he simply wants to be known as one of the hardest workers on the team, an emphasis of his this offseason.
“I want to make a name for myself,” Hicks went on to say. “I feel like a lot of people just remember me or know me for what I did in high school and not what I’ve done on the field yet because I haven’t really done anything. So I’m excited to do that, and for me, that was me taking my step forward.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.