Ohio State Buckeyes: Ryan Day bullish on athletic new linebackers

COLUMBUS — Linebacker play has been up and down for Ohio State in recent years, and that goes beyond merely good seasons and bad.

Production from the position that traditionally serves as the lynchpin of a defense has been inconsistent even within some of the better campaigns.

That includes the last two when injuries hindered starters Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers at times and reduced their productivity.

They are both gone to the NFL, but at least one of their replacements will be a familiar face. Cody Simon, who is using his fifth year granted by the NCAA for playing through the COVID pandemic in 2020, got regular playing time last season and is penciled in as the starting MIKE linebacker this fall.

“It’s important to make sure that the linebackers are the one, they’re the glue,” head coach Ryan Day said earlier this month. “Cody’s had an unbelievable offseason. He leads the pack with that group, but you’re seeing a lot of those guys come on.”

Who joins him remains to be seen, but the race is between a pair of Ohio natives who were five-star recruits in the class of 2022: Alter grad C.J. Hicks and Sonny Styles of Pickerington Central.

At 6-foot-3 and 233 pounds and 6-4, 235, respectively, both pass the look test.

They may be the most athletic players on the 2024 squad, but there is still one big question: Can either of them play the position?

Styles was recruited as a safety, a position he played last season with varying degrees of success.

Hicks was signed with an eye on being an in-the-box ‘backer, but he has not gotten much run with the defense in his two seasons at Ohio State after doing a little bit of everything for the Knights — primarily on the edge or in the secondary.

One of them figures to be the starting WILL linebacker this fall, and they both could play a lot depending on what sets coordinator Jim Knowles decides to deploy.

Knowles primarily used a 4-2-5 look in recent seasons, but the athleticism of Hicks and Styles plus the changing nature of college football offenses might lead him to use a third linebacker (known as the SAM) more.

“We’re still 4-2-5 but we’ll have multiple deployments,” Knowles said in March. “At times we can be 4-3, but we’ve still got Sonny. You’ve got Sonny as a SAM ‘backer who has experience playing safety, so that creates multiplicity.

“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. 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.”

However it shakes out, Day expressed confidence in what he has seen from the position group since the end of last season.

That includes potential backups such as Gabe Powers and Arvell Reese.

“You can see the length on them, and they do a good job in terms of fitting the runs,” Day said. “They have enough length to cover in zone, but they’ll also blitz, and that’s something that we wanted to really work on this offseason is getting better at blitzing.”

Knowles deployed Eichenberg effectively as a blitzer in 2022, but that was less part of his role last season.

“Hopefully we can even take the next step in the preseason, but they’re all playmakers,” Day said. “I think when you see us, and the length that we have there, we look a little bit different than in the past, and that’s exciting when you tie that in with our front four and the back end.”

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