There are positions in each sport reserved for the brave, fearless and possibly crazed few. The spot at which embarrassment is far more likely than adulation.
In soccer, goalkeepers work in isolation to make sure each game has as little action as possible. In baseball, pitchers stand alone on the rubber, muttering and cursing to themselves, trying to keep their opposition off the scoreboard and dealing with abuse from fans in any game in which they’re short of perfect.
It’s no coincidence that both of these positions are known for the preponderance of oddballs — who would choose this for themselves?
Whatever gets you there, Cal football fans are pretty happy that sophomore cornerback Elijah Hicks has signed up for the lifelong duty of trying to avoid having his ankles broken on someone else’s highlight reel. For the time being, Hicks looks pretty content to work on his own island, shutting down opponents, and continuing to show that he can get anywhere he sets for himself.
Ayear into having the bravado to try that experiment at the college level, the results look pretty stellar. After starting in seven games and getting serious playing time in the other five during his true freshman year, Hicks has been a huge contributor to the defensive turnaround that Cal football has seen under head coach Justin Wilcox.
“I think one of the things that’s stood out about Elijah is his competitiveness,” says defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander. “I think that is something you’ve got to have as a corner; when he brings that to the field, it’s an energy unlike any other personality that we have on the defense.”
Seeing the ease with which he shut down UNC and BYU receivers in weeks one and two of this season, it’d seem Hicks has been doing this his whole life.
That’s not quite the case.
Unsurprisingly, few kids start out wanting to play corner full time. It’s often the case that cornerbacks get converted from another position at some point in middle or high school.
Hicks never really had to convert; through high school, he got to be an ageless Peter Pan, playing a variety of positions and wreaking havoc wherever he played. His dad and future coach, Tony, would end up being the one to introduce young Elijah to football.
“I just remember one day my dad taking me to a park and I just started running around,” Elijah reflects. “It was just a group of kids and people telling us what to do. And after a while they had a football out there, and I didn’t really understand what we were doing, or why we were out there — I just thought it was a park. And then we started doing football drills, and I thought, ‘I like this game,’ and my dad just kept taking me.”
If running around is what brings you joy, there’s no better position than running back, and that indeed turned out to be Hicks’ first love. It’s a position that will always encompass the element of improvisation and creativity of the kids in the park. The same is true of returning punts, another skill Hicks would come to excel at.
Hicks’ foray onto the defensive side of the ball began with a stint at outside linebacker, but in eighth grade, he got his first taste of cornerback, and it was an immediate fit.
“Once I started playing corner, which was like eighth-grade year, I found that the most fun position just because when you’re able to lock down a receiver and they can’t do anything about it, that was just probably the most fun part,” Hicks says.
Throughout youth football, Hicks always had one coach he could count on — his father. Although he was an offensive line coach, and didn’t have too much interaction with Hicks for that reason, he still remained a big influence.
“When he would talk to the team overall at the end of practice and we were all together, he was just speaking those facts to us,” Elijah says. “He (taught) me the importance of getting better every day — even when you’re succeeding, try to find something you can improve on, because there’s always something you can work on. That dialogue, that advice, is what I always go by.”
Listed at 5’11” and 190 pounds, Hicks likely seemed a little out of place to college recruiters. As a whole, the evolution of football has seen wide receivers and those trying to lock them up grow taller and more agile, with less of a premium placed on the ability to flat-out hit like Hicks can. But as he got further and further along in his high school career, he simply became impossible to ignore.
Five interceptions in his senior year were nice, but five touchdowns and almost 500 yards as a receiver made him stand out. Going beyond 1,000 all-purpose yards, when you include his return statistics, made him something altogether. As the Whittier Daily News put it in crowning him its player of the year, he was “Mr. Versatile.” Schools had to take notice.
“At first I just wanted to get offers, so once they started coming in, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is cool … my hard work is finally shining through and paying off,” Elijah reflects. “And so at first, I was like, I just wanted to go to a D-I school, but as they kept coming in and I kept working and getting better, I kept getting bigger schools and bigger schools.”
He ended up with offers from 10 Pac-12 schools, plus others from standout programs such as Boise State, Michigan and Notre Dame. Sometimes fate makes the decision about college for a recruit, giving them only a couple of serious options to consider. But Hicks had a whole platter, so what was going to make the difference?
For just about every recruit, the decision comes down to one of two things: staying close to home, or playing for a specific coach who woos the prospect with scheme, playing time, NFL hopes and whatever else they can offer.
Hicks is one of the few players in the country who can genuinely say they made the decision on entirely different grounds.
“I just bet on myself — if I’m good enough to make it, I’m going to make it anywhere,” Hicks says. “So the scheme and all that, that’s cool, but I wasn’t really into all that. Coaches could leave at any moment. I wasn’t going to school for a coach or anything like that; I was going for what I want in a school if I didn’t play football.”
Hicks initially committed to Notre Dame, the first school he visited, and he was in South Bend to watch the Fighting Irish take on Stanford on his birthday weekend.
Ask Hicks a question about how longtime Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s defensive scheme and the litany of NFL alumni influenced his decision, and don’t expect much in response.
The call on Notre Dame was purely academic. With his good grades in high school, he’d be attractive to a lot of great schools, and his parents made it clear that academics should be on his mind in the recruiting process. That priority would remain constant — his commitment to Notre Dame, not so much.
“I didn’t really care for the weather,” Hicks says. “(Notre Dame) was a good academic school butI hadn’t yet come to Cal. I had never been in the Bay Area before, so I hadn’t even had a chance to look into Cal.”
It didn’t take long after seeing Berkeley to make his decision. After a visit in mid-December, he committed to Cal on Jan. 10. There was just one issue with the timing.
The Bears had no coach. Hicks’ deprioritization of coaching had been put to the ultimate test by Sonny Dykes’ firing, and Hicks put his money where his mouth was. It would only be another four days until Justin Wilcox was hired, but why wait? Academic faculty lists are a lot more stable than NCAA coaching staffs.
As it turns out, Wilcox’s hiring and his coaching staff as a whole have been a boon for Hicks, and vice versa. The defensive turnaround over the last two years is due in no small part to the stellar play of Hicks and fellow starting cornerback Camryn Bynum, a redshirt sophomore. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who’s shown a huge amount of faith in letting his young cornerbacks play tough one-on-one matchups, has a special connection with Hicks, with both having attended famed Long Beach high school St. John Bosco. But the biggest connection Hicks has is with Alexander, his gregarious and outgoing defensive backs coach.
“I mean, in the film room, every day, I was learning new techniques, new everything when it came to football … whether it was IQ, whether it was the playbook, things to help slow the game down,” Hicks says. “Everybody on the coaching staff contributes to learning, but I’ll say (Alexander) taught me the most.”
That respect goes both ways.
“(He has) a fiery dog mentality,” Alexander says. “You can see it — he’s very competitive. There’s no other way you can say it; he has a fiery mentality and he loves competing. You get a chance to play with a guy like that and it affects all 10 guys that are on the field with him.”
So what’s left for Hicks? Now that year two is underway, he knows his IQ and situational awareness are better and will make a big difference for him on the field. But going back to the advice that’s kept him steady throughout his life, there’s always going to be another area to improve in.