Wendell Tyler, great. Theotis Brown, great. Freeman McNeil, great. Gaston Green, great. Karim Abdul-Jabbar, great.
New paragraph. Skip Hicks, good.
“He does a lot of things really well, but also he has a lot of things he needs to work on - obviously, being a little bit more physical as a player,” says Skip Peete, who coaches Hicks and the rest of UCLA’s current running backs.
For Hicks to join UCLA’s great running backs, he needs to distinguish himself during his final college season, which starts with Saturday’s visit to Washington State.
Hicks gained 1,034 yards and scored a school-record 20 touchdowns last season, but he missed most of the previous two seasons after an injury to his left knee required reconstructive surgery.
With 1,858 career rushing yards, Hicks ranks 14th on the Bruins’ all-time list. He needs better than 1,300 this season to surpass McNeil, who ranks second with 3,195. Green gained 3,884, a record that appears quite safe.
But surpassing McNeil should be no problem - assuming Hicks lives up to his own expectations.
“By the end of the season, hopefully we’ll be 11-0 and I can look back on my stats and hopefully I’ll be able to reach 1,500 or 2,000 yards,” says the 22-year-old senior.
He can reach 1,500 by averaging better than 135 yards per game over UCLA’s 11-game regular season. Before last season, such talk would have seemed laughable.
Thanks to the torn knee ligament Hicks suffered while long-jumping for the UCLA track team in March 1994, most observers figured he would never fulfill the expectations that were established during an often brilliant freshman season.
On just his second carry as a Bruin, Hicks burned California for a 40-yard touchdown. One week later, in his first college start, he carried 19 times for 148 yards - against Nebraska. It was the second-highest rushing total by a UCLA freshman.
An ankle injury sidelined Hicks for three games that season, but he came back in time to score a touchdown in the Bruins’ 40-27 victory at WSU. The date was Nov. 6, 1993, an afternoon that is frozen into Hicks’ memory.
“I remember it being really, really cold and I remember they had a really good defense that year - really, really had a lot of team speed,” Hicks says. “They had knocked out our quarterback, I want to say it was Wayne Cook at the time.
“But we ended up lucking out and getting out of there with a victory.”
Hicks grew up in Texas and had played in cold weather before, but this was different. “I just never had to worry about the cold weather and the fans,” Hicks says. “That’s what I’ve noticed about going up to Pullman, the fans don’t pretty much like UCLA.” To put it mildly.
While the Bruins may never be welcome in Pullman, Hicks hasn’t exactly been showered with praise in Los Angeles. At least not yet.
A perception exists that Hicks, a softspoken and congenial man, is a soft runner - especially for a man who stands 6 feet tall and weighs more than 220 pounds.
“I don’t think he has that mentality of running people over,” said WSU linebacker Brandon Moore. “But I think he has good speed, good vision. He’s elusive and he’s a big back, kind of hard to bring down.”
UCLA coaches are equally honest in their assessment of Hicks, sometimes to the point of downplaying his accomplishments. Take those 20 touchdowns, for instance.
“When you get close, a lot of (backs) could have scored,” Peete says.
But isn’t that a bit harsh?
“No,” Peete says. “The nature of any coach, you don’t want your player to think he’s better than he actually is.”
Hicks considers the ‘96 season-finale against USC to have been a personal breakthrough. In that game, the Bruins overcame a 17-point deficit to win in double-overtime, and Hicks showed more on-the-field resiliency than some thought he possessed.
“Early on in that game, he was punished pretty good,” says Peete, whose younger brother, Rodney, played at USC and is now a quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles. “As the game went on, he got a little stronger. In his own mind, he became tougher mentally as a player.”
The game finally ended when Hicks broke several USC tackles during a 25-yard scoring run, his second touchdown of the day.
“That’s when I found out that a lot of guys on the team looked up to me as a leader, even though I wasn’t a team captain,” Hicks says. “During that game, I realized that they were feeding off my energy a lot when I would get excited.
“That’s one of the things I’m going to try and do a lot this year.”
Hicks’ speed has never been disputed, even after the injury. He befuddled WSU last year, gaining 116 yards rushing and 59 receiving. He also scored three touchdowns. WSU defensive coordinator Bill Doba provides the scouting report.
“One, he’s got great speed,” Doba says. “And two, if you watch enough film, you’ll see he’s hit, he’s hit and he just bounces off. He has good body balance, drops his pads.
“Probably the most impressive thing is, he’ll get right up in the line and just wait for that hole to open, keep his feet moving, keep his balance, and then as soon as there’s a crease, boom, he splits it.”
Making him good, if not yet great.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: On deck UCLA at WSU, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. Tickets: 1-800-GOCOUGS or G&B outlets. TV: Live on ABC. Tape, Sunday, 9 a.m. (FSN). Radio: KXLY 920 AM.
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