Back when the University of Cincinnati’s football team was still fighting for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it was a pair of goal-line stands in the final minute against Tulsa that preserved an undefeated record.
Ja’Von Hicks made three tackles in the final three minutes of that game, stopping two long runs and holding a receiver to a one-yard gain at the 5-yard line with a minute left and an eight-point lead. It was a moment that stuck out to Hicks near the end of the season, the defense prevailing with its back against a wall. Plus, he knows what it took to put himself in that situation.
It’s been a unique career path for Hicks, a Colerain grad, who moved into a starting role as a sophomore in 2019 when safety James Wiggins was sidelined all year with a torn ligament in his knee. He started all 14 games. Earned an honorable mention to the all-conference team. Intercepted five passes, the most by a UC player since 2007. Recovered four fumbles.
Wiggins returned in 2020 and Hicks was back in a reserve role.
“I learned a lot about myself,” Hicks said. “It built a lot of character into myself that I didn’t think I had.”
It wasn’t easy on Hicks. He knew he could be a starting safety, but he had to bide his time behind a pair of all-conference safeties and future NFL draft picks.
“It was definitely difficult at the time,” Hicks said. “I just tried not to be a disease to the team. Just always put a smile on my face and go out there and cheer. It definitely was rough. I think a lot of people that would’ve been in my shoes could have been a disease to the team and that wasn’t me. I was more looking at the success that was happening.”
The Bearcats’ success is one reason why Hicks stuck around when the transfer portal is such a popular path for players. And he’s not leaving yet. Hicks announced he will return for a super senior season in 2022. His experience in the secondary should be important for a team that loses star cornerbacks Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Coby Bryant.
Hicks totaled 55 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups to help the Bearcats to a school-best No. 4 ranking and a historic trip to the College Football Playoff. He registered at least five tackles in five of his last eight games.
“There have been good times and there have been bad times,” Hicks said. “Most importantly, it’s just about the program and what the program is doing. We’re winning and I’m happy. I’m happy for my brothers to go out and play. When my time was ready, I’ll be ready.”
The Bearcats, replacing a lot of key starters, hope next season will be more reloading than anything close to rebuilding. Houston, on paper, should be a strong challenger for the American Athletic Conference crown.
Hicks felt like he grew as a leader last season, communicating a bit more and feeling more comfortable in his second year as a starting safety. During bowl practices, it was important to him to watch some of the younger players.
“I want them to be successful,” Hicks said. “Like Coach (Luke Fickell) always says, leave the place better than what you found it. That’s my main focus. Just be able to develop the young guys and be able to help them so when their time comes, they are ready.”
Everything didn't always happen on Hicks' preferred timeline, but he knows the importance of being ready at all times.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati football safety Ja'Von Hicks leads secondary in 2022