Ohio State football: Alter product C.J. Hicks working on multiple roles this spring

COLUMBUS — Is this the year C.J. Hicks breaks out?

That question preceded the start of spring football at Ohio State, and it does not figure to be answered until this fall.

The junior from Alter High School was with the No. 1 defense as the “Will” linebacker on the first day of spring next to new “Mike” LB Cody Simon, but there should be no shortage of competition for that spot.

Fellow junior Sonny Styles moved to linebacker in the offseason after starting at safety last fall, and classmate Gabe Powers has generated positive buzz early this spring.

Hicks declined to identify his personal goals for his third season at Ohio State, saying only he is trying to get the most out of every practice rep.

“I don’t really look at it as a competition,” he said. “I treat my reps as game reps, and I’m sure (Styles) does the same thing. That’s one of my closest friends. We’re roommates, so I don’t think it’s any type of way.”

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles indicated earlier in the spring Hicks vs. Styles is not necessarily a zero-sum game.

Although he has typically used a 4-2-5 base defense, Knowles said playing more 4-3 looks with Simon, Hicks and Styles all in the game is a possibility.

If that is a path the Buckeyes go down, Knowles will also need to know multiple players can fill each roll in case of injuries.

“You get into a three-linebacker package with Sonny and Cody and C.J., you’re pretty good, but you can’t have just one guy,” Knowles said. “If Sonny’s not there as the Sam then C.J.’s gotta play it, too. Bring Gabe in at Mike and Cody can play Will and you still have a great lineup. You start out this way, but you always have to know who’s in next. So C.J. has to know both positions.”

Styles already played both outside linebacker and Nickel safety last season, so that is a role he could reprise, but Hicks said he is also learning the positions, which can be interchangeable at times depending on the offensive personnel on the field.

“I feel like everybody is stepping up and there’s more competition,” Hicks said. “Everybody’s fighting for a spot. Even me and Cody, our spots are not solidified with the 1s right now, but we just keep fighting. My goal for the spring is obviously maintain my spot but also continue to learn, take steps forward and be the best player I can be.”

Hicks also confirmed such a role is more like the one he played at Alter, where he frequently was either a strong safety or outside linebacker who lined up to the wide side of the field.

“I feel like that can show how versatile I am as well,” said Hicks, who has been a mainstay on special teams the last two seasons but played very few defensive snaps. “People forget I played safety in high school — corner and all that. In high school I played more to the field. There were formations where I would be in the boundary, but it’s kind of the same thing.”

Because Hicks was the No. 1-rated recruit in Ohio and in his Ohio State signing class, Knowles mentioned he worried about how much pressure he might be under to show what he can do.

Fans certainly express more interest in the status of such players, but Hicks said he has not paid much attention.

“I have expectations for myself, so I put more pressure on myself than anyone else,” he said. “It didn’t feel any different for me. I have things I live by for myself.”

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