Ohio State Linebackers C.J. Hicks, Gabe Powers and Reid Carrico Trusting the Process Despite Lack of Playing Time So Far

By Dan Hope on March 16, 2023 at 8:35 am
C.J. Hicks and Gabe Powers
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY Network

Reid Carrico, C.J. Hicks and Gabe Powers were all ranked among the top five players from Ohio and top-10 linebackers in their respective recruiting classes, yet all of them played the same number of defensive snaps for the Buckeyes last season: Zero.

After playing in all three phases of the game as the star players for their respective Ohio high schools – Archbishop Alter (Hicks), Ironton (Carrico) and Marysville (Powers) – each of them arrived at Ohio State with aspirations of making immediate impacts for the school they’ve always dreamed of playing for. Instead, they spent all of last season watching from the sidelines as Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers played the vast majority of snaps at linebacker.

Going into 2023, which will be Carrico’s third year at Ohio State and Hicks and Powers’ second, their path to more playing time hasn’t gotten much clearer. Chambers and Eichenberg are both back for another season, as is Cody Simon, who is expected to retain his place on the depth chart as the No. 3 linebacker.

Ohio State defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jim Knowles said last week that he wants to rotate more at linebacker this season than he did last season. But while he specifically mentioned Simon as a linebacker who he wants to play more snaps this year, he indicated that Hicks, Powers and Carrico still have to prove they belong in the rotation.

“When you look at C.J. and Gabe, the young guys, you're really looking at that leap from year one to year two. Can they show in the spring that they're ready to play?” Knowles said of Hicks and Powers. “You want those guys to force you to put them on the field by how well they play.”

“Reid’s bouncing around a little bit right now,” Knowles said of Carrico. “We're trying him out at some different positions. We have our Sam position against 12 personnel. He's kind of jumping around a little bit. We definitely want him to make a push on special teams. And we hope he shows up. And you're looking for him, also like Gabe and C.J., to show that they have to be on the field, to show that maturity.”

During their interview sessions with Ohio State reporters last week, Hicks, Powers and Carrico all expressed confidence that they will be ready to make an impact for Ohio State’s defense this season. But they also said they trust Knowles’ judgment to determine which players should be on the field.

“Me personally, I feel like I am ready. But I'm gonna trust coach Knowles and whatever his decision is,” Hicks said. “The best guy's gonna play. And the guys who aren't starting or aren't getting as many reps, we gotta support them.”

Among the three of them, Ohio State fans are particularly hungry to see Hicks get playing time, considering his pedigree as the No. 1 linebacker and No. 7 overall prospect in the 2022 class. He may be the closest of them to actually getting in the rotation, too, considering he played in Ohio State’s final 12 games last season on special teams.

Hicks acknowledged last week that he was surprised by the lack of rotation at linebacker last season. But he says he believes in Knowles’ vision for Ohio State’s defense and says his focus is on continuing to improve in order to show Knowles he should be in the rotation.

“We have a great defensive coordinator, we have a great system and whatever he wants us to do, we're gonna do it,” Hicks said. “My thing right now is being able to be the best me and be the best linebacker that I can be. And building that trust with Coach Knowles so he can be able to put me on the field and I can show my ability and play linebacker.”

Despite his five-star recruiting status, Hicks says he had a lot to learn as a freshman. Specifically, Hicks said he was thinking too much last year. Now, he feels like he is able to play faster, which he believes will enable him to impress Knowles this offseason.

“When I first got up here, I didn't want to be wrong, I didn't want to go to the wrong gap. Now, shoot, I go to the wrong gap, I gotta make the play,” Hicks said. “So just gotta go.”

Powers expressed similar thoughts when asked about his first year at Ohio State, saying he feels much more confident now that he has a full year of practice under his belt. While he played in just two games on special teams only as a true freshman, Powers knew he would have a lot to learn when he started his Buckeye career, so he isn’t bitter about his lack of first-year playing time.

“I didn't come in expecting, you know, I'm gonna be all this. I know I got to work my way. And so I've been working my way up,” Powers said. “It's still hard. You want to go out there and play. That's what you came here to do is play. But at the same time, you know that you got to work, you got to trust the process. So that’s what I've been doing.”

While Powers says he always sets his goals high – which means he aspires to be a starter this year – he says he’s learned a lot from watching Eichenberg and developing behind him at the Mike linebacker position. Knowing that he still has to earn his way into the linebacker rotation, Powers says his biggest goal right now is to establish himself as a regular on special teams like Hicks did last season.

“I feel like I can get a lot of special teams,” Powers said. “We've only put in punt right now, so I mean, we'll see how that goes. But my full intention is to go in there and play wherever I can.”

Out of all three of them, the one who has the most reason to feel frustrated is Carrico, as he has already been a Buckeye for two years yet played 19 fewer defensive snaps in 2022 than he did in 2021. That’s led to some speculation that Carrico could be a transfer candidate, but Carrico shut down that speculation last week.

“Somebody will text me, like, ‘Hey man, heard that you were going to transfer.’ And I'm just like, ‘Well, where in the world did you hear that from? Because I haven't even really given it a thought.’ So I’d say that to an extent it does get on my nerves, because I take pride in being a great teammate who's 100% all in,” Carrico said.

Carrico says it has been humbling not to play much in his first two years as a Buckeye, and he’s motivated to prove this year that he can be a playmaker. But even as his path to a bigger role remains uncertain, Carrico believes he will achieve success as a Buckeye in the long run.

“I just stay true to myself and what I've always done. Just keep your head down and work. You just kind of have blind faith that it's gonna work out in the end, you know, and it's sometimes that's kind of a gamble,” Carrico said. “But I'm willing to take my chances.

“I just think that right now, the thing for me to focus on is just keep building trust in the coaches. I’ve built up enough trust to where I played on special teams last year and stuff like that, and for them to put you out there on Saturday, you know the guy is doing something right, no matter who you are. So I'd say that just keep building the trust. With the coaches, them trusting me, me trusting them. And then eventually, you know, I'll be out there and everything I'm working for will happen, hopefully.”

Neither Eichenberg nor Chambers saw much playing time in their first two years as Buckeyes and didn’t become full-time starters for Ohio State until they were fourth-year Buckeyes last year, so Carrico says he looks to them as an example of what he could still accomplish as his Ohio State career progresses.

“Tommy, Steele, (Cade) Stover, all those guys, it took them a couple of years to get their feet in the ground. Those guys are all like big brothers to me here, so we've had talks about what it's like going through that, and I don't really want to say like waiting your turn, but yeah, I would say that I definitely have looked to Tommy and how his situation was and compared it to mine a little bit,” Carrico said. “And I'd say that sometimes that helps, ‘cause Tommy's first two years, everybody was like, ‘Well, can this guy really play?’ And the guy’s an All-American now.”

Carrico, Hicks and Powers will have plenty of opportunities to show what they can do this spring, as Ohio State currently has only five scholarship linebackers participating in spring practice. Tommy Eichenberg is unavailable this spring after offseason surgery, while incoming freshman Arvell Reese won’t join the Buckeyes until the summer. That leaves just Chambers and Simon ahead of Hicks, Powers and Carrico on the spring depth chart with Chip Trayanum now playing running back and Teradja Mitchell and Palaie Gaoteote IV gone from last season.

Whether that will lead to actual playing time this fall for Hicks, Powers and Carrico remains to be determined. But the three native Ohioans all remain hopeful about their future as Buckeyes and motivated to do whatever they can to help the Buckeyes win games in 2023.

“I just want to win. I want to get a national championship, I want to get a Big Ten championship and I want to beat the team up north. So that's our goal,” Hicks said. “Whatever they need me to do, I'm gonna do it. Give 110% everything that I do and have fun while I'm doing it.”

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