After playing in five games in 2020 and recording just five total tackles, sophomore safety Ronnie Hickman came into the 2021 campaign determined to make an impact for Ohio State.
A starting role wasn’t promised heading into fall camp. Hickman knew he'd be competing for a job, and was willing to play special teams if he needed to. But his early-season performance might have even exceeded his lofty expectations.
While a good portion of the Buckeyes’ defensive personnel have struggled mightily in a limited three-game sample size, Hickman has been one of OSU’s bright spots on the defensive side of the ball. He had a coming-out party in the Buckeyes’ 45-31 season opening win against Minnesota, racking up a career-high 11 total tackles. He recorded 10 total tackles against Oregon a week later.
“It feels great, you know,” Hickman said of his early success. “Just being able to contribute to my team has been a goal of mine. My goal was to contribute to this team, whether it was on special teams or on defense. Fortunately, it’s been on defense.”
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound playmaker isn’t your typical safety. He has been OSU’s starting bullet, which by now most of you know is essentially a hybrid between safety and linebacker. In his first three games, he’s been utilized all over the field. Against the run-heavy Gophers, Hickman played 46 of his 62 snaps in the box and just four at free safety, according to Pro Football Focus. In 67 snaps against Oregon in Week 2, 37 came in the box while 20 were at free safety as he also lined up in the slot eight times.
“I’m a lot more comfortable,” Hickman said of his extended game experience this year. “Getting three games under my belt has helped get me some experience, but I’ve still got a long ways to go.”
After Oregon exposed OSU’s defense in a 35-28 loss, schematic changes were made. The Buckeyes lined up with two high safeties more frequently against Tulsa on Saturday, and Hickman played more than half of his snaps in the deep secondary while lining up in the box for less than half of his snaps, per PFF.
Hickman thrived again against Tulsa and was named one of just three defensive champions for Ohio State in the Buckeyes’ 41-20 victory, in which he recorded nine total tackles (seven solo), a pass deflection and an interception. The sophomore defensive back is the only two-time champion on defense for OSU this season after also receiving that honor following the Minnesota victory. OSU did not name any champions after the Oregon loss.
His interception came with just 10 seconds remaining in the first half on a tipped pass intended for Tulsa wideout Josh Johnson after the Golden Hurricanes had engineered a drive to midfield.
“You’re starting to see Ronnie make plays,” Ryan Day said Tuesday. “You’re starting to see him with multiple games where he has 10 or more tackles … I think that’s going to go a long way when you get into the meat of the schedule, because now they know they can do it.”
As it stands, Hickman is tied for 14th in the country with 30 total tackles so far, a number that also serves as a team-high.
He may be half-safety and half-linebacker depending on how much he’s utilized in the box going forward, but nevertheless, he’s on pace to finish with 120 tackles in the regular season. No Buckeye has had at least 100 in a season since Raekwon McMillan had 102 in 2016.
“Ronnie is a dog, the hardest worker on the field and a great tackler,” freshman cornerback Denzel Burke said. “He’s a great football player and a great person.”
Despite a fast start, Hickman isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s very aware of the defensive struggles his unit is experiencing, and knows allowing 28.7 points per game and 6.1 yards per play is unacceptable at OSU.
“There’s definitely a standard,” he said. “We want to set that standard, if not surpass the standard.”
He says he and other defensive backs spend most of their time off the practice field watching film, hoping to learn opposing offensive concepts in an effort to better anticipate plays on the field.
“I think it’s the details,” he said. “We watch the film and we’re this close to making that big play. We just need to focus on those details.”
After OSU plays in-state foe Akron this Saturday, Hickman will have a homecoming of sorts. A Wayne, New Jersey native, Hickman will return to his home state next weekend to face Rutgers.
“Definitely got some family members that want to come to the (Rutgers) game for sure,” he said.
If the first few games are any indication, the Hickman family will be in for a show.