Two of the top five defensive recruits in Ohio State’s 2022 class, C.J. Hicks and Gabe Powers might have been high on your list of impact freshmen heading into last season.
But if you were looking for No. 11 and No. 36 on the gridiron, you only would’ve spotted them on special teams. Neither Hicks, a five-star prospect and the seventh-rated overall player in his class, nor Powers, a four-star recruit and the eighth-best linebacker in the country, took a single snap on defense during their freshman season.
Given the performance of Ohio State’s starting linebacker duo in 2022, the lack of opportunities for younger Buckeyes seemed justified. Ohio State endured season-altering defensive breakdowns in its two most important contests, but the linebacker position wasn’t at the crux of most of them. Tommy Eichenberg hardly came off the field en route to an All-American campaign in the middle of the Buckeye defense and Steele Chambers had a rock-solid season of his own, intercepting two passes and finishing with the second-most total tackles on the team (77). In 2021, no Ohio State linebacker had more than 64 tackles.
Thus, Ohio State’s linebacker rotation mostly consisted of just two players. Eichenberg and Chambers both played upwards of 685 snaps while Cody Simon was the only other linebacker to log more than 51. And with both starters – as well as Simon – returning in 2023, the outlook for players like Hicks and Powers to see regular playing time seems similarly bleak.
But with both Eichenberg out of commission for all of the spring and Chambers sidelined for the latter half with a lower-body injury, the second-year linebackers had a chance to show improvement. And Hicks and Powers did exactly that, performing admirably throughout Ohio State’s spring schedule and finishing the spring game as the Buckeyes’ top two tacklers as the defense dominated in the annual exhibition.
Since he was a top-10 recruit, fans have been clamoring to see more of Hicks in scarlet and gray. They got their wish on April 15 as the Dayton, Ohio, product played more snaps than anyone else on the roster in the spring game (62) and finished with six total tackles, a tackle for loss and two pass breakups. In the absence of Chambers, Hicks didn’t look out of place as Ohio State’s top Will linebacker, and Ryan Day praised his effort accordingly after the fact.
“He flashed more today,” Day said. “We're still looking for that consistency. But you're starting to see it more and more. He's making plays, he's showing up. And I think (defensive coordinator Jim Knowles) and (graduate assistant James Laurinaitis) are both doing a great job with him.”
Simon, who lined up next to Hicks as Ohio State’s starting middle linebacker in Eichenberg’s stead, also acknowledged the intensity his younger stablemate has brought to the table as he enters his second year in the program.
“From these first 15 practices, his mental side of the game has developed so much,” Simon said. “He's always in the film room. He's always getting extra work. And I'm proud of him, because it's hard. None of this stuff is easy to do. Especially with our offense, they give us so many different looks, and he's making plays out there. You saw him. He had a really great game today. So I'm just proud of him.”
Hicks may be the biggest name among Ohio State’s young linebackers, but Powers may have had an even more impressive spring. The Marysville, Ohio, native flashed during the Buckeyes’ first spring scrimmage and continued to show his skills after that. In the spring game, Powers led all Buckeyes with eight total tackles at middle linebacker, logging more snaps than any linebacker aside from Hicks (56).
Powers’ improvement wasn’t just an observation from the media. Knowles confirmed his step up in caliber of play while evaluating his unit after Ohio State’s first spring scrimmage in March.
“Gabe’s getting better. I mean, he’s establishing that respect from his teammates,” Knowles said. “We’re encouraging him to compete, he’s getting better with his hands and his feet. He’s improving. Expectations are high for him, so I’m staying after him.”
Knowles made no bones about his vision to play a limited rotation at several important positions on defense entering his first season as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, and upon reflecting on the Buckeyes’ season snap counts, it’s clear he wasn’t bluffing. But considering the injuries Eichenberg sustained throughout the season, as well as the issue that cost Chambers the second half of his spring, Knowles’ philosophy could change this year.
In 2023, Knowles hopes to widen things up in order to keep his top players fresh by the end of the season.
“I definitely want to rotate them more,” Knowles said regarding the linebackers. “… I'm definitely hopeful we can take some of the reps off of Tommy and Steele because it'll help us at the end of the season.”
That may not mean Hicks or Powers will see a heavy workload on a consistent basis in the season to come, but both should expect to see the field at linebacker or one point or another – something neither of them did as freshmen.
The evaluation process is far from over. Hicks and Powers can continue to make progress in the preseason, when both Eichenberg and Chambers are expected to return to their posts after recovering from injuries.
Before either of them can steal snaps from their more established veteran teammates, they have to prove to Knowles and Ohio State’s defensive staff in practice that they can excel wherever they are on the depth chart.
“In base defense, you have to take that young, promising player and he’s got to win with the twos. You have to show that, number one, you can dominate with the twos,” Knowles said. “Start there. You show us you can dominate with the twos, now we can start to mix you with the ones. You show you can hold your own with the ones, now it’s up to me to create more positions and opportunities for you. But you got to win, you got to kick ass with the twos first. And I think let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s win all those reps first.”
By performing well with both the second-team defense and the first-team defense when those opportunities came their way this spring, Hicks and Powers made their case that Knowles does need to find ways to get them on the field sooner than later.