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Even though Ohio State has produced some great linebackers over the years, it feels like it has been too long since the Buckeyes have had a difference-maker at linebacker. Just a few years ago the linebacker unit was at its low point, as Tuf Borland was getting burned on a regular basis and the talent at the position was lacking so much that Steele Chambers had to be pulled from running back to add some fresh blood to the linebackers.
It’s always darkest before the dawn. At least we can see the sun rising for the linebackers at Ohio State. Not only has Tommy Eichenberg stepped up as the leader of the group, the additions of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and graduate assistant James Laurinaitis have sparked the linebackers.
Last year Eichenberg became the first Buckeye linebacker since Raekwon McMillan to make at least 100 tackles in a season, and will be in the mix for the Butkus Award this season. While there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to Eichenberg, the player that has the potential to become the next great Buckeye linebacker is C.J. Hicks.
The sophomore came to Ohio State as the top recruit in the state in the class of 2022, and the second-best linebacker recruit nationally. Last year Hicks played in 12 games, recording six tackles in limited time on the field. Despite not getting a ton of playing time in his first year in Columbus, there is a lot of hype about Hicks heading into his sophomore season.
Hicks got an early chance to shine this year with Eichenberg and Chambers not playing in the spring game due to injuries. In the annual exhibition to close out spring practices, Hicks was on the field for over 60 snaps, recording six tackles and breaking up two passes.
Now comes the tough part for Knowles and head coach Ryan Day — trying to find a spot for Hicks on the field that can make use of his incredible talent. With Eichenberg and Chambers slated to start at linebacker for Ohio State this year, it’s likely we see Hicks at the “Jack” position, which will allow him to keep opposing offenses off guard with it being more of a hybrid position. Last year saw defensive end Jack Sawyer lineup at the position and create havoc at times. While Hicks doesn’t have the size that Sawyer possesses, he has more speed, which could create even more problems for opposing blockers.
No matter where Hicks lines up on the field this year, he has a resource at his disposal that is invaluable. After spending last year at Notre Dame as a graduate assistant, former Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis returned home this year to join Ryan Day’s staff in a similar role. There’s no doubt that the development of Hicks hit another gear with Laurinaitis returning to Columbus. It’s hard not to imagine Hicks being one of Ohio State’s breakout defenders this year now that he is being coached up by one of the best linebackers in school history.
This year feels like the perfect recipe for Hicks to take the next step in his development and put the rest of the college football world on notice. With Ohio State having established starters at linebackers already, Knowles can find creative ways to try and utilize the athletic ability of Hicks on the field, as well as get him accustomed to playing more snaps.
The Buckeyes don’t need Hicks to be on the field every play, especially after the recent addition of Northwestern linebacker Nigel Glover from the transfer portal. What the Ohio State defense will need for Hicks is for him to make plays when his number is called. With so many potential stars at each level of the defense, the spotlight won’t be on Hicks all the time, but you want him to demand attention when he is on the field, which could open up holes for other Buckeye defenders to exploit.
It feels like under the guidance of Laurinaitis and Knowles that Hicks is on the right track, and hopefully by this time next year we are including Hicks in the conversation as one of the best linebackers in the country, since he certainly has the talent to be a part of that discussion.