COLUMBUS — Jim Knowles expects C.J. Hicks to blossom for Ohio State football this fall — one way or another.
“You see it in everything,” the Buckeyes defensive coordinator said of the Dayton native’s development in the spring. “I mean, you just see it in how he learns, how he’s able to articulate the defense and his assignment and how he does across the board in the classroom. You talk about being on time and not just being present for the workouts but being a leader. So he’s had a really good offseason.”
Hicks has been one of the most-talked about players this offseason despite seeing very little time with the Ohio State defense as a true freshman last fall.
When a player has Hicks’ recruiting pedigree — five-star, No. 1 in the state and No. 1 in the recruiting class — that is not unusual whether he plays much or not.
In fact, not playing tends to increase the chatter about a player, especially in a day and age when transferring has become much easier and more common.
Hicks has never expressed any interest in that and said he is satisfied with his status after a year in Columbus, but of course he hopes to see more than special teams work this fall.
So does Knowles.
“C.J. is a guy who I’m predicting sometime this season we’re going to see really unleash,” Knowles said. “The good thing is he’s not pressed into service because of the veterans in front of him. I think that’s helped him to be able to play more relaxed, but at some point this year, we will be able to see C.J.’s athletic ability. I think he’s just on the cusp of breaking out.”
That would be easier to do if Hicks weren’t behind returning starters Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers at linebacker, but there could be another avenue to playing time.
At the beginning of spring practice, Knowles mentioned he could see Hicks filling a hybrid role in the defense called the “Jack,” something that remains on the table as the Buckeyes head into summer.
“It’s up to me to find some things that he can do in the Jack-type of game, and also in those situations, where we have the opportunity for him to play (at linebacker),” Knowles said. “Whether that’s through a rotation with me just saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to get him in every so often.’ Because to move along a guy’s progression, he’s got to get plays.
“So it’s either me defining a role for him within the game plan, creating a substitution where I know I’m going to put him in no matter what the score is or it’s in those situations where it’s a second half (blowout) situation and he can really do a lot.”
Of course, coaches often talk about using many different players this time of year, and that talk does not always become reality.
That is something Knowles wants to avoid.
“Now that I’m back off the road (from recruiting), until the season starts I’m constantly tinkering and looking at things like, ‘OK, how much could he handle that’s outside of a normal Will linebacker position?’ And then it’s in my thought process and then forcing myself to actually write down on paper, ‘OK, in the first half of the season, I want to make sure he gets X amount of plays.’ "
Although Knowles likes to let his linebackers stay on the field to get into the flow of the game, he said lessening the load on Eichenberg and Chambers would not be a bad thing after both came out of last season banged up.
“The more that C.J. can play, the more it helps us over the long haul,” Knowles said.
Beyond that, slotting Hicks in as the Jack could be a perfect fit in more ways than one.
Neither Hicks nor the Jack position were seen on the field as much as many might have expected last fall, and the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder could possess just the type of unique skillset Knowles needs to make it work.
Stuff the run, rush the passer and maybe even drop into coverage? Hicks did all those things and more for head coach Ed Domsitz at Alter, so it might make sense to see if he can do them at the college level.
But there is more to the position than having the physical ability.
Knowles said whoever plays the Jack must know what everyone on the defense is doing within the scheme, a task the coach takes upon himself and one he seems to think Hicks can handle.
To that end, he is anticipating spending time with Hicks and Mitchell Melton — whose last two seasons were wiped out by injury — to prepare them this summer.
“That’s a position when fully developed where that guy knows everything about the defense and everything about the calls, so a lot of that is one on one time with me and those two players so even if there are other guys that aren’t quite 100 percent comfortable, that guy is a full commander,” Knowles said. “He’s kind of running around making the calls.”