Ronnie Hickman came to Ohio State to play safety and as a third-year sophomore last year, he finally got a real opportunity to do that.
But even then, it didn’t happen exactly as it was intended, which has been the story of most of Hickman’s career to this point.
Hickman arrived as a true freshman in 2019 with an injury that kept him out all season. Another injury in 2020 limited him to just five games — mostly on special teams — and five total tackles.
As a third-year sophomore with only five total games under his belt, there wasn’t all that much attention on Hickman heading into last year. That changed a bit during the spring when he was moved to the hybrid linebacker/safety Bullet position. He competed with Craig Young for the job and eventually came out on top.
Hickman embraced a role that most on the outside weren’t all that sure he was suited to play. At 6-1 and 205 pounds, there wasn’t a lot of “hybrid” to his frame. He ended up starting every game last season, but when free safety Josh Proctor went down with an injury early in the season, so did OSU’s single-high defense.
The Buckeyes eventually eschewed the defense they started the season with and Hickman went from a hybrid defender to a strong safety. Through all of the turmoil and change, Hickman led the team with 99 tackles.
Coming into this season Hickman is seen as one of OSU’s defensive leaders, but he has once again found himself in a new defense and at a new position. It didn’t take new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles long to move Hickman from strong safety to free safety, which has him defending the wide side of the field rather than the short side like he did a year ago.
“Yeah, it’s been a lot of new coverages,” Hickman said of his four years at Ohio State. “Each year I’m pretty sure it’s been like a little change to the defense, at least a small amount. But this year, I’m playing where I’m playing at and I’m liking it. I’m excited for what I can do for the team, and as long as I can contribute, I’m good. My main goal is to help this team win and do what I can.”
Hickman sees himself as a football player and wherever the coaches put him, he’s going to do whatever he can to make an impact. Now that he’s back at safety again, he’s comfortable. Even if it’s free safety instead of strong safety, none of it is foreign to him.
“I’m comfortable,” Hickman said this spring. “I’m out here with my guys, it’s the most comfortable I’m gonna get, coming on this field and just putting in work every day. This what we do, so I’m comfortable.”
Being a safety, Hickman has had to make a lot of calls in the past, which has given him an ability to grasp defenses. Knowles spoke glowingly of Hickman even before spring ball began this year, which tells you he’s exactly the kind of guy a coach loves. He studies the game and is vocal about it, which is exactly what a safety needs to be. And even though he’s at a new position in a new defense, there are certain rules that never change.
“You’ve got to be vocal,” Hickman said. “You’ve got to be that quarterback on the defense. So as far as that, not much has really changed. I’m still communicating the same way with my guys as much as possible. I think that’s just like that safety kind of mentality you’ve got to have.”
Hickman has admitted to having nerves back in the winter about learning another new defense, but it wasn’t a concern or worry. He’s experienced so much change at Ohio State that he’s not only learned how to handle change but also how to adapt and thrive. And anyway, even in a new defense, there are certain things that safeties will always have to do, and Hickman is comfortable with all of them.
“I would say so,” he said. “Being able to read the quarterback, make plays on the ball, and then fill the alley when I need to. Covering space, whether that’s covering tight ends and stuff like that, all those things I feel like a safety needs to be able to do, and I feel like I’m equipped for that.”