Can Ohio State football’s second jack experiment ‘unleash’ another former 5-star prospect?

By Nathan Baird, cleveland.com
COLUMBUS, Ohio — C.J. Hicks believes he is one of the best linebackers in the country, even if Ohio State football has not declared him the best on the roster.
That designation, though, may come sooner than later.
“Unlimited,” starting linebacker Steele Chambers said of Hicks’ upside after Thursday’s first preseason practice. “He can kind of just do whatever he wants, honestly. In the weight room, he’s just a specimen. On the field, he’s just learning the plays more and more each day. So he’s really stacking up right now.”
Not the first praise an Ohio State teammate has thrown Hicks’ way since the start of winter workouts. So defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jim Knowles should also have a plan for utilizing an emerging talent.
Knowles said that plan has not diverged from the one he laid out in the spring. Hicks continues to develop at linebacker and — depending on how OSU uses senior Cody Simon — could be the primary backup to Chambers at will.
Yet Knowles also spoke with more clarity about Hicks’ future at the hybrid defensive line/linebacker position known as the jack. He had dropped that hypothetical back in the spring, too. Earlier this summer, he predicted Hicks would be “unleashed” at some point this season.
The Buckeyes tried this experiment with defensive end Jack Sawyer last season. It did not work out for him or the defense as a whole. Hicks, though, welcomes the opportunity to make any impact this fall.
“I feel like the jack can show how versatile I am, show that I can come off the edge but also being able to drop back and still play will as well,” Hicks said. “So just showing I can play multiple spots on the field.”
If the Hicks experiment at jack makes you uneasy, you are probably not alone. Ohio State made Sawyer the first jack when Knowles installed his system. It used the package sporadically before essentially ignoring it in the biggest games of the season.
Back in the spring, Knowles said he regretted how that episode was handled.
“I feel like he didn’t have the improvement or the big jump that he could have last year because he got involved in the jack stuff, and maybe he wasn’t as focused as he could have been to make those improvements at D-end,” Knowles said in March.
On Thursday, though, Knowles said he does not fear a similar experiment could hinder Hicks’ development. While he remains with the linebackers now, Hicks will eventually cross-train with the defensive line to become more acclimated to the jack.
Knowles believes the jack fits Hicks better as a more instinctive position with less reading and more attacking.
“They’re different players,” Knowles said. “And, you know, C.J. has got that short-space quickness and burst. jack is more powerful. So I just think C.J. fits the mold better.”
Hicks agrees, even if his long-term focus remains on proving himself at linebacker. He pointed to his highlight clips from Dayton’s Archbishop Alter High School. In those days, Hicks lined up all over the defensive front and attacked the backfield through a variety of gaps and from multiple angles.
Knowles only expects to use the jack as a “curveball, a change-up” this season. With two starters and a veteran backup entrenched ahead of him, though, perhaps that change-of-pace role can be the one that allows Hicks to prove his self-confidence.
“I want to make a name for myself,” Hicks said. “I feel like a lot of people just remember me for what I did in high school, not really what I’ve done on the field yet, because I haven’t really done anything. So I decided to do that and for me that was me taking my step forward.”

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