Ohio State football: Defensive coordinator lays out expectations for Alter grad in second season

COLUMBUS — What is next for Alter grad C.J. Hicks was among many topics on the first day of spring football at Ohio State.

Jim Knowles did not have an answer, but he did mention an intriguing possibility.

“Great athlete. Really good kid, good energy. Good team guy, and I think that is worth saying, right?” the Ohio State’s defensive coordinator said of Hicks, the highest-rated recruit in Ohio State’s 2022 class. “Because when you’re five-star and Mr. Everything, I think it’s challenging to come into a top five program and not play right away, but he handled it really well.”

The comments mirrored what Knowles told the Dayton Daily News during Peach Bowl media day in December, but this time they were delivered to a larger audience in the Ohio State team meeting room Tuesday.

Since the end of last season, Hicks’ chances of major minutes have actually declined as Tommy Eichenberg decided to return to school for his senior season, joining Steele Chambers to give Ohio State both of its starting linebackers back for one more year in Knowles’ 4-2-5 scheme.

So while Hicks’ fellow five-star recruit Sonny Styles is expected to be in the mix for a starting job at safety, Hicks might have to settle for scraps at linebacker and special teams snaps again as a sophomore.

“C.J.’s situation is different because there’s a couple guys coming back, there’s a lot of experience there,” Knowles said. “He plays in a position that’s closer to the ball, so I feel like there’s some learning in terms of all the schemes and all the different fits that you get as a linebacker.”

In contrast, defensive linemen who are physically ready to play can get on the field because they don’t have to worry about much besides getting into the backfield, and youngsters in the secondary can benefit from having more time and space to react to what the offense does.

“So I’m really just looking for improvement from C.J., not putting any pressure on him,” Knowles said. “I’m really just looking for him to improve this spring. I know he’s going to have a great career, but I haven’t put any kind of timeline on him yet.”

He could consider a different role for Hicks, though.

A cornerback, safety, linebacker and even edge rusher (along with running back, receiver and return man) at Alter, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Hicks has a unique set of skills and experiences.

So could he find himself in the mix at the “Jack” position, a unique hybrid role in Knowles’ defense?

“I have thought about that for C.J. because when directed, he’s skilled, and he can get from point A to point B quickly,” Knowles said.

However, the position as a whole could be on the back burner this spring after it pretty much failed to launch last season.

“I don’t know how much we’ll be delving into the Jack this spring, but I think it is something good to look at C.J. for the fall,” Knowles said. “We did not quite use the position as much as I had hoped last year. It just didn’t seem to develop with our personnel. And so this spring, I want to focus on the fundamentals of our four down (linemen) and really getting better at the fundamentals.”

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