Ronnie Hickman may not have been quite as obvious of a choice as C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba to represent Ohio State at Big Ten Media Days. But bringing Hickman to Indianapolis wasn’t a hard choice for Ryan Day.
Day said there were as many as 10-15 Buckeyes who he would have felt good about bringing to Big Ten Media Days, and Ohio State has plenty of returning veterans who could have been logical candidates to represent the Buckeyes’ defense at Lucas Oil Stadium. Hickman was the one who Day felt checked every box for what Ohio State wants in a media days representative.
“This is a guy who's been through a lot of adversity at Ohio State. Had some injuries, but then played some really good football in the last couple of years, has had a really good offseason, has had really good leadership,” Day said Wednesday. “We’re gonna need that veteran leadership, especially early in the season as we kick off with Notre Dame at home.”
As Day alluded to, Hickman had to overcome some obstacles early in his Ohio State career to get to where he is now. He did not play at all as a true freshman in 2019 while recovering from a torn ACL, then suffered another injury that cut his 2020 season short after five games. Going into last season, Hickman was largely overlooked as a potential breakout player, as most preseason depth chart projections had him backing up Craig Young at the bullet position.
But after beating out Young to win the starting job at bullet, Hickman ran with the opportunity. He led the Buckeyes with 100 total tackles, 36 more than any other Ohio State defender in 2021, and was the most consistent performer on a defense that otherwise struggled.
Hickman could play an even more important role on Ohio State’s revamped defense in 2022.
After playing what was effectively the strong safety position for the Buckeyes last year, Hickman is now expected to line up as a free safety as the “adjuster” in Jim Knowles’ defensive scheme. He feels as though he’s taken well to that transition.
“You play safety, you've been in that free position before, you've been in the boundary. So it's not like I haven't been there,” Hickman said. “It's just more so getting more familiar with it and really just getting comfortable in it.”
Day said Hickman “really has put his time into this program” and has “really taken to the new scheme with Jim Knowles.” Knowles offered similar praise when he talked about Hickman this spring.
“I love Ronnie Hickman,” Knowles said. “I think he's got the skill. I think he's got the savvy. I just think he's a great piece in the middle there to run the show back there. I just like the way he plays and handles his business.”
Day has been impressed by the mentality he’s seen from Hickman this offseason, which he believes will lead to a big season ahead for the redshirt junior safety.
“I just see the look in his eye,” Day said. “He's fun to be around, he's got great energy, he's got really good leadership. Just when you see him, it’s like he looks you right in the eye and he daps you up and gives you a hug. And it’s just, when you're one more year into the program like that, that veteran maturity, just the confidence level has just been off the charts. And I think he's poised to have a really good year.”
Ohio State is counting on Hickman to be one of its top defensive leaders this season, and that’s a role that certainly comes with some pressure as the Buckeyes look to bounce back from back-to-back down years on that side of the ball. But Hickman says he feels comfortable in that position.
“I mean, I guess you can see it as a responsibility. But you know, it's just going out there and being the best teammate I can to my brothers,” Hickman said. “Just like they would do the same, I'm gonna do that for them. So I don't really see it as a burden or something I gotta carry or something like that, it's just going out there and just being a teammate for my guys.”
Beyond the injuries he suffered early in his career, Hickman has also had to adapt to coaching changes throughout his career as a Buckeye. The primary coaches who recruited him, Greg Schiano and Alex Grinch, were replaced by Jeff Hafley and Matt Barnes before his freshman year at Ohio State. Hafley was at Ohio State for just one season before he was replaced by Kerry Coombs. After he was coached by Barnes and Coombs for the last two seasons, Hickman is now being coached by a new safeties coach, Perry Eliano, and fellow secondary coach Tim Walton.
Going through the challenges he has so far in his Ohio State career, though, have made him more grateful for the position he’s in now as a team leader.
“It's been a roller-coaster,” Hickman said. “I've had a new position coach every year I think I've been in college, honestly. So it's been a roller-coaster. There's been ups and downs. But I'm thankful for it all. Without God, and without my family supporting me and the brotherhood, I wouldn't be where I am. And my parents as well. So I'm just thankful that I'm here now. And I'm excited for the future.”
“I think he's poised to have a really good year.”– Ryan Day on Ronnie Hickman
Hickman leaned on his veteran teammates to help him through the challenges he dealt with early in his Ohio State career, and now he wants to provide the same guidance for his fellow Buckeyes as they go through challenges of their own.
“I try to lead in any way as possible,” Hickman said. “If guys come to me for anything, I'm there for them. I'm always down to help out people under me, because that's what the people did to me when I was younger. So if that's what I gotta do, that’s what I'm gonna do.”