As Ronnie Hickman sat down for his first interview session as an Ohio State football player on National Signing Day, the early enrollee safety was taken aback by how many media members were in attendance at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“This is cool,” Hickman said. “I’ve never seen this many people trying to interview me before.”
Hickman came to Ohio State as a four-star recruit who was ranked as the 10th-best safety in the class of 2019, so he knows what it’s like to attract attention for his ability to play football. He won a New Jersey state title at DePaul Catholic High School in 2017, so he knows what it’s like to compete for championships.
Arriving at Ohio State can be an adjustment for anyone, though, as one acclimates to college life on a campus of more than 60,000 students. That adjustment can be especially profound for a new Ohio State football player, particularly one who enrolls in January, as he goes straight from high school to combining a full spring semester of classes with early morning workouts.
The benefit of enrolling in January, though, is having a full semester to make that adjustment before the rest of the freshman class – which Hickman believes will improve his chances of being successful at Ohio State.
“I think it just helps getting used to everything, because it’s a whole new system once you get here,” Hickman said. “Especially coming from high school, no matter where you come from, it’s going to be different. So I think this does help me, especially when it comes to competing with the guys in my class that didn’t come early, I have a little extra step.”
Unfortunately for Hickman, he isn’t able to fully participate in winter workouts with the Buckeyes like the rest of the early enrollees. Hickman tore his ACL in his right knee in October, so he still has a way to go in his recovery before he will be able to run at full speed again.
That said, Hickman feels good about the progress he has made in his recovery over the past four months. Since arriving at Ohio State, Hickman has been working regularly with Adam Stewart, the Buckeyes’ head physical therapist, and he said he is currently feeling the best he has since undergoing surgery.
“It’s honestly been great,” Hickman said of his progress in his rehabilitation. “So I’m excited to just keep improving daily, and get better as an athlete.”
Hickman is hopeful that he will be able to participate in spring practice, but said his goal right now is just to do what he needs to make a complete recovery.
“The plan is to be ready for spring, but there are no promises made, so I’m just working out, trying to get better right now,” Hickman said. “I feel like I’m going to be healthy, I hope I’m going to be healthy, but my goal is really just to become better as a person and as an athlete, and work to get 100 percent healthy.”
While Hickman hasn’t been able to participate in mat drills, he has still been working with the strength and conditioning staff and the rest of his teammates in the weight room, so he’s gotten a taste of what it’s like to be coached by director of sports performance Mickey Marotti.
“He's very honest with you,” Hickman said of Marotti. “He's intense. But I feel like you need that from a weight-room coach.”
Hickman says the biggest thing he has learned in his time at Ohio State so far, though, is just how to balance life as a collegiate student-athlete.
“Being hit with classes and workouts and the assignments that come with it, you got to know what to do,” Hickman said. “I think that the staff here, I like the academic advisors, they really help you. And you’re here with your brothers and your teammates, you guys are going through everything together, so it helps to have your brother there to go through it with you.”
So far, Hickman says his time at Ohio State has both met and exceeded his expectations.
“I had high expectations, but once you get here and really get into things and things start to come at you, it kind of exceeded them a little bit,” Hickman said. “It’s been something new, but it’s something that I’ve been excited for and waiting for pretty much all my life. So I’ve been loving it so far.”
Hickman was disappointed when he initially found out that former Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, the coach who primarily recruited him to become a Buckeye, would no longer be with the team this season. Urban Meyer announced his retirement as head coach just weeks before Hickman arrived, and Alex Grinch, Ohio State’s safeties coach when Hickman committed last year, is now the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma.
Even so, Hickman still decided to enroll early at Ohio State and play for new head coach Ryan Day and his staff, because his commitment to becoming a Buckeye wasn’t based on playing for a specific coach.
“I committed to this school,” Hickman said. “Coaches were a big part, but not only for the coaches. This is a great university, so I was still pretty solid.”
“It’s been something new, but it’s something that I’ve been excited for and waiting for pretty much all my life. So I’ve been loving it so far.”– Ronnie Hickman on his early impressions of Ohio State
Hickman was excited when he found out that another New Jersey native, Jeff Hafley, would be Ohio State’s new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach, and he’s excited to have the opportunity to play for him.
“I always get good vibes when he’s around,” Hickman said of Hafley. “He always has energy, and I like that he’s a real honest man. And he’s from Jersey.”
Whether Hickman is able to contribute for the Buckeyes as a true freshman could depend on when he is healthy enough to return to practice at full speed. With Jordan Fuller and Brendon White back at safety as returning starters, and Josh Proctor, Isaiah Pryor and Amir Riep among the other candidates for playing time at the position, Hickman will need to earn his place on special teams before he gets his shot to play regularly on defense.
In the long run, though, Hickman is confident that playing for Ohio State will set him up for success both on and off the field.
“They put up big numbers, especially when it comes to putting guys in the league,” Hickman said of Ohio State. “That’s my dream, that’s everyone else’s dream here. So I think you can’t go wrong with this place. And they’re not just a football program. They’re dominating in the world outside of football, and I think that if football doesn’t work, I can succeed off the field just as well.”