Among the Buckeyes’ Power 5-leading six defensive touchdowns during the 2021 season, sophomore safety Ronnie Hickman didn’t exactly expect to make the one he recorded.
Against Akron Sept. 25, Zips redshirt sophomore quarterback DJ Irons slung a pass to freshman tight end Tristian Brank, who bobbled the throw at the left hash. Right behind the receiver came Hickman, crashing to make a tackle but instead coming up with the first pick-six of his career of which he said was one of his favorite moments of the season.
“I kind of just went in for the tackle, not really expecting the ball at all, thinking I was just going to make a third down stop,” Hickman said. “But the ball went right through the tight end’s hands and it kind of just fell into my pocket. I looked down and I saw the ball and I was like, ‘I got to run.’ That was really cool.”
As the season progressed, Hickman shined as a consistent, productive presence in the Buckeyes’ secondary. He did so while fulfilling the role as the “bullet,” a hybrid linebacker and safety position near the tackle box.
Having started all 12 games this fall, Hickman can become the first Buckeye to make 100 tackles in a season since linebacker Raekwon McMillan did so in 2016. He’s just three away from reaching the century mark.
The feat is a long time coming for Hickman, who suffered a torn ACL during his senior year of high school while other injuries held him to only five games over his first two seasons at Ohio State. Hickman said he had “some ups and downs” during his recovery process and this season, but evaluated his efforts with a simple report.
“From not having much experience from the previous year, I would say good,” Hickman said. “I was able to contribute to my team in the wins that we had, so I’m very grateful for that.”
The Wayne, New Jersey, native led No. 6 Ohio State in tackles during five games this season. Hickman said he’s always had high expectations for himself, so playing as the best version of who he is is what he foresaw.
Secondary coach Matt Barnes, who took over the role prior to this season, said he felt the entire Ohio State coaching staff banded together to overhaul the defense midseason. He said one consistency highlighted across the board in the Buckeyes’ secondary was what he enjoyed most.
“Seeing some of our young guys develop and really start to play some of their best football,” Barnes said. “That’s been very rewarding.”
Hickman’s emergence transpired during a season in which Ohio State’s defense underwent dramatic changes following the Buckeyes’ 42-35 loss to then-No. 12 Oregon Sept. 11. Current defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs then moved from the sidelines to the press box, while Barnes took over play calling duties.
Head coach Ryan Day announced Dec. 7 that current Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles will join Ohio State in the same position beginning Sunday. Hickman said Knowles’ resume looks promising on paper and a brief team meeting with him went well.
“It was a short conversation, but we’re definitely excited and looking forward to meeting him,” Hickman said. “I thought he was a cool guy. I didn’t get too much of a read on him, but I will in January.”
With a new defensive coordinator joining the Buckeyes’ coaching staff and the offseason on the horizon, Hickman said he hasn’t thought much about what the 2022 season will hold.
He does, however, have one target in his sights beyond defeating No. 11 Utah in the Rose Bowl Saturday.
“Coming back next year and trying to win a national championship,” Hickman said.