Jim Knowles Predicts C.J. Hicks Will “Really Unleash” As A Sophomore: “He’s Just on the Cusp of Breaking Out”

By Griffin Strom on May 31, 2023 at 8:35 am
C.J. Hicks

Jim Knowles is intent on finding a way to get C.J. Hicks onto the field this season.

Much to the chagrin of the Ohio State fanbase, the five-star recruit and seventh-overall prospect in the 2022 class didn’t play a single snap on defense last season. And with starting linebackers Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers returning to the roster in 2023, exactly where Hicks might fit into the picture still seemed unclear at the start of the offseason.

But more than six weeks after the spring game, Ohio State’s second-year defensive coordinator sounds more optimistic than ever about prioritizing a role for the sophomore linebacker.

“C.J. is a guy who, I’m predicting some time this season we’re gonna see him really unleash,” Knowles said during an interview session at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center Tuesday. “The good thing is he’s not pressed into service because of the veterans in front of him, and I think that’s helped him to play more relaxed. But at some point this year we’ll be able to see C.J.’s athletic ability. I think he’s just on the cusp of breaking out.”

While Chambers missed the latter half of the Buckeyes’ spring schedule due to injury, Hicks was given the opportunity to take first-team reps at Will linebacker and even started in Ohio State’s annual spring exhibition.

Knowles said Hicks has shown up on the field, in the meeting room and in the classroom thus far this offseason, and said his maturation from year one to year two in the program has been evident.

“You see it in everything. You just see it in how he learns, how he’s able to articulate the defense and his assignment, how he does across the board in the classroom,” Knowles said. “And just being on time, not just being present at the workouts but being a leader. So he’s had a really good offseason. … I think C.J. has made all the progress necessary to put him in that position to get plays in the real game.”

Still, Hicks isn’t likely to jump Chambers for the starting spot at Will. The former Buckeye running back finished the 2021 season as a starter for Ohio State and remained in the role for all of Knowles’ first year, racking up the second-most tackles on the team (77) to go along with a pair of interceptions.

"At some point this year we’ll be able to see C.J.’s athletic ability. I think he’s just on the cusp of breaking out.”– Jim Knowles on C.J. Hicks

But Knowles said Hicks will see playing time one way or another. Knowles mentioned Hicks in the same breath as Mitchell Melton as the two top prospects to play his Jack linebacker position situationally in 2023 and said he plans to make a more concerted effort to get him into the rotation, even if his most consistent snaps come later in games in which the Buckeyes may already hold a substantial lead.

“It’s up to me to find some time, some things that he can do in the Jack type of game and also in those situations where we have the opportunity for him to play,” Knowles said. “Whether that’s through a rotation, me just saying, ‘Hey, I’m gonna get him in every so often,’ because to move along a guy’s profession, he’s gotta get plays. So it’s either me defining a role for him within the game plan, creating a substitution where I know I’m going to put him in no matter what the score is, or those situations where it’s a second-half situation where he can really play a lot.”

Beyond Hicks’ undeniable talent, Knowles said a deeper rotation at linebacker will help Ohio State’s starters avoid injury. The Buckeyes hardly took Eichenberg off the field in 2022 as the All-American linebacker played the most snaps among all OSU defenders (761) and never played fewer than 42 snaps in a single game. But by the end of the season, Eichenberg was playing through two broken wrists and subsequently had to miss the Buckeyes’ entire spring schedule.

For longevity's sake, Knowles sees the benefit of divvying up snaps more regularly in the season to come.

“We want to play a long season. And you saw what happened to Tommy No-Thumbs,” Knowles said. “As you get down to the end, (you need more depth). So the more that C.J. can play, the more that it helps us over the long haul.”

Upon entering the program, Knowles made it known that he preferred to play tighter rotations on the back end of his defense, and he stuck to his guns during his first year with the Buckeyes. But he acknowledged Tuesday that the talent at Ohio State is unlike any of his previous stops, and therefore he must look for ways to get a player like Hicks involved even if he’s not yet at the top of the depth chart.

“You get to the Ohio State, you realize there are a lot of guys with a lot of skills that you should find roles for. … I don’t know that I really noticed it or thought about it until this spring. Because that first year, really your hair is on fire,” Knowles said. “I don’t have any hair left. Because you’re attempting to input and produce at the same time. So I think after year one you have the luxury to kind of calm down in the spring and look at the big things.”

Knowles doesn’t think Hicks’ development has been stunted by the lack of opportunities he saw as a freshman. If anything, Knowles thinks Hicks was able to learn and grow without being thrust into the spotlight last season, and that he’ll be all the better for it once he gets his time to shine.

“C.J. has soaked it all in, learned from it,” Knowles said. “I know everyone wants to see the highly-recruited guys play right away, but as coaches, you prefer to let a guy kind of grow a little bit.”

But by the sound of things, it doesn’t seem like fans will have to wait another full year to see the standout Dayton product get the chance to show off his talent in scarlet and gray.

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