James Laurinaitis High on C.J. Hicks’ Potential, Wants to See “Big Spring” from Ohio State Five-Star Linebacker

By Dan Hope on February 23, 2024 at 8:35 am
C.J. Hicks

Despite arriving at Ohio State as the No. 7 overall prospect in the 2022 recruiting class, C.J. Hicks has played only sparingly in his first two seasons as a Buckeye.

After playing only on special teams as a true freshman, Hicks played just 75 snaps on defense as a sophomore. Nearly all of those snaps came in late-game situations where the Buckeyes had already secured a win, aside from a four-snap stint at Will linebacker in the Cotton Bowl when Steele Chambers briefly left the game with an injury.

Hicks’ lack of playing time over the past two seasons was partially because he had a trusted trio of veterans in front of him in Chambers, Tommy Eichenberg and Cody Simon who played the vast majority of linebacker snaps in 2022 and 2023. His coaches have also suggested that they didn’t feel Hicks was ready to play regularly yet.

“I thought last year we had three guys that earned the right to play,” said Ohio State linebackers coach James Laurinaitis, referring to Eichenberg, Chambers and Simon.

Going into his junior year, Hicks has the opportunity to earn a much bigger role this season. While Simon remains at Ohio State and is expected to be the Buckeyes’ starting Mike linebacker, Chambers and Eichenberg entered the 2024 NFL draft. That leaves the starting Will linebacker job up for grabs entering this spring.

Hicks still has to prove he can be relied upon as an every-down player if he’s going to win that starting job. But Laurinaitis is hopeful that the open spot in the starting lineup will motivate Hicks to take a big step forward this spring.

“I think just consistency, to be honest with you,” Laurinaitis said when asked what he wants to see from Hicks this spring. “C.J. has all the potential in the world, he does. And I think sometimes, he's just gotta cut it loose and go play. And I think honestly, I expect a big spring from C.J. I think with the way he has attacked this offseason workouts, the way he's carried himself, I expect him to take a jump. 

“For some guys, it's easy to come in right away and just go and play and for some, it takes a little bit more development. But I think C.J. is getting to a point where, hopefully this spring, there's a lot of growth. And maybe some of that will come with just the fact hey, this position is for the taking, right? And I think some guys thrive on that. And we'll find out kind of how he reacts to it.

“But I'm a big fan of C.J. Hicks. I always have been. He has such a raw and rare kind of skill set to where he can, just physically, he has so many traits that you love at the linebacker position.”

Hicks will face competition for the starting Will job from fellow third-year linebacker Gabe Powers and second-year linebacker Arvell Reese, who Laurinaitis also spoke highly of on Tuesday in his first press conference after being promoted from graduate assistant to linebackers coach. Ohio State could also fill that spot in the lineup by moving Sonny Styles to linebacker, though the Buckeyes are still evaluating how exactly they will utilize Styles this season.

Styles isn’t the only five-star defender from the 2022 recruiting class who could potentially practice at multiple spots this spring as Ohio State works to determine the best use of his talents. Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who was Ohio State’s linebackers coach for the past two years before Laurinaitis’ promotion, said before the Cotton Bowl in December that he needs to find a role for Hicks in 2024 but indicated that role might not necessarily be as a full-time starting linebacker.

“I still think of that term of unleashing him and it will happen eventually,” Knowles said, referencing a prediction he made last May that Hicks would “really unleash” at some point last season. “You see things in bowl practice, right, where you get a chance to line him up in different places. And I think you see that incredible talent and speed. And I know that I have my work cut out for me with C.J. in finding the right place for him. Because he's really a guy who needs to be unleashed. He needs to be able to play free and roam and do a bunch of different things.

“It's definitely something that I'm going to spend a lot of time in the offseason to get him going. I think you can create some things around him. And now with Tommy and Steele gone, I think that's going to drive me even more to put him in the right place so that he can succeed.”

“I'm a big fan of C.J. Hicks. I always have been. He has such a raw and rare kind of skill set to where he can, just physically, he has so many traits that you love at the linebacker position.”– James Laurinaitis on C.J. Hicks

Although Ohio State opted not to use the Jack position in its defense last year, both Knowles and Laurinaitis said that Hicks could be a candidate to play that hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this year, though Laurinaitis also named Reese and Mitchell Melton as options for that position if the Buckeyes choose to use it in 2024.

“I think all the options have to be open,” Knowles said when asked if Hicks could be used as a rush end this year. “He's talented. I need to find the right place.”

Considering that Ohio State returns a star tandem of defensive ends in Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau, though, the Buckeyes still have to determine whether bringing back the Jack position would add actual value to the defense this year. Given that, the clearest path to playing time for Hicks remains at linebacker.

Despite his recruiting stature, Hicks is not a shoo-in to start at linebacker this season. But Knowles and Laurinaitis will be looking for ways to get him on the field and put his playmaking ability to good use as long as he proves he’s ready for a bigger role this offseason.

“I think it all comes down to consistency. Consistency breeds confidence. So if you want to put your stake on a position, you gotta do it day in and day out,” Laurinaitis said. “And I think the vision that I have for our room is hopefully we come out of this spring to where we have at least four guys that have earned the right to play. That's my hope … Because I think if you play well enough, the season’s gonna be really long with this 12-(team) playoff, right? You're looking at what, 16 games or something. So we're gonna have to rotate if we have the ability to.”

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