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Player to Watch: C.J. Hicks

The sophomore linebacker shone in the Spring Game, and he may be ready to make the leap and push the starters for more snaps in 2023.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 29 Ohio State at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about players to watch this upcoming season. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Player to Watch” articles here.

If you weren’t excited about linebacker C.J. Hicks’ career prospects prior to the annual Ohio State Spring Game, you probably should be now.

Hicks tied for the second-most tackles in the game, with six, and equaled Sonny Styles’ game-high two pass breakups. But beyond that, Hicks looked the part of the next great OSU linebacker, making a difference on a number of meaningful plays.

Expectations for Hicks were high coming out of Archbishop Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio. The former five-star recruit was the No. 1 ranked player in the state in the 2022 class, the nation’s No. 2-ranked linebacker, and a High School Butkus Award finalist. Those kinds of accolades bring projections of seeing the field early in college, being a difference maker during his career, and a likelihood of leaving early to enter the NFL Draft.

That’s all still on the table for Hicks, who flashed early and often in the Spring Game. While it’s foolish to assume Spring Game performances will translate to meaningful games the following fall, this is the first time we’ve gotten to see what the coaches have been watching in practice. This is a player who could become a game changer.

Playing linebacker, Hicks will have opportunities to make plays in both the run game and against the pass. He nearly had himself an interception in the Spring Game and always seemed to be around the football, which is the hallmark of a great linebacker.

Hicks appeared in 12 games in 2022, missing the opener against Notre Dame but playing in every game the Buckeyes played the rest of the way. He finished with six tackles (four solo, two assists) over the course of the season. The fact that he got so many appearances in his freshman year speaks highly of what the coaching staff thinks of his abilities. He’ll look to contribute even more in 2023.

Although he’ll still be behind starting linebackers Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers in 2023, I’m looking for Hicks to force his way into more snaps on defense this season. This will be a year of preparation for Hicks and Gabe Powers to gain more experience, get more meaningful reps, and become a solid starting tandem in 2024.

If he performs the way I think he will, Hicks is going to be able to give more rest to guys like Eichenberg, Chambers, and Cody Simon. With good enough performances, he could even push his way past the latter this season. Simon has flashed his potential but has left the door open for guys like Hicks and Powers to encroach on his snap count. (Powers, by the way, led all players with eight tackles in the Spring Game as he also used that stage to show what he can do.)

If Hicks can add a few pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame — his most recent listed weight is 225 — without sacrificing any speed, quickness, or agility, he could become a force. He’s athletic enough that he played running back on offense in high school, as well as kick returner and punt returner on special teams. He can run, hit, catch the football, and do something with it once it’s in his hands.

I don’t expect Hicks to be more than a backup in 2023 unless there are injuries in front of him on the depth chart. But I do believe this year he’s going to make some of those plays that have us talking about him at work on Mondays following Ohio State games. He’s a player I’ll have my eye on this season.