UCLA tailback Skip Hicks is so laidback, friends in his hometown of Burkburnett, Texas, call him Turtle. Even when carrying the football, he's more likely to wait behind his line for an opening than he is to run over tacklers.
Hicks, a 6-foot, 220-pound fifth-year senior, has parlayed that tortoise approach into hair-raising numbers this season. He ran for 190 yards and four touchdowns in the Bruins' season-opening 37-34 loss to Washington State, 80 yards and two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving) in their 30-24 loss to Tennessee, and 96 yards and three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) in their 66-3 spanking of Texas on Sept. 13. His 18 points per game is second best in Division I-A, and he needs just three more touchdowns to break Gaston Green's UCLA career record of 40.
Hicks, however, is best known at UCLA for a play in which he didn't participate: a fourth-and-goal at the Washington State one-yard line late in the fourth quarter. After losing a yard on first-and-goal from the Cougars' nine, Hicks took himself out of the game for a breather and missed the next three plays. His replacement, redshirt freshman Jermaine Lewis, was stuffed on fourth down, and UCLA never got the ball back.
After the game, Hicks needed a turtle's shell to deflect the criticism he and coach Bob Toledo got from Bruins fans and the media, who questioned Hicks's resolve and Toledo's decision-making. The remarks stung Hicks, but in keeping with his nature he tried to move on.
As a freshman, Hicks learned about taking the good with the bad. In the fall of 1993 he led the Bruins in rushing, with 563 yards, while starting ahead of Karim Abdul-Jabbar, now with the Miami Dolphins. On just the second carry of his career, he ran 40 yards for a touchdown against Cal. The following spring, he tore the ACL in his left knee while competing in the long jump as a member of the UCLA track team.
Hicks rehabilitated the knee and returned to the gridiron in time for the Bruins' fourth game of the 1994 season, but he was hampered by pain much of that fall and gained only 161 yards on 40 carries. He was a medical redshirt the following year after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on the same knee. He regained his old form in '96, when he led UCLA in rushing, with 1,034 yards, and broke the Bruins' record for touchdowns in a season, with 20.
More important, Toledo says, Hicks came out of his shell last season and became a leader. That turnabout came at halftime on Nov. 23 against Southern Cal, with UCLA trailing 24-7: Annoyed by the Bruins' lackluster performance, Hicks got in the faces of several teammates, challenging them to raise their level of play. Partly inspired by his outburst, UCLA won 48-41 in overtime.
Hicks, who is scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in history, says he wants to inspire his teammates to salvage the 1997 season. The last time UCLA started 0-2, he points out, the Bruins finished 8-4 and went to the '94 Rose Bowl. "If we play every game the way we did against Texas," Hicks says, "we could still go to a major bowl, maybe even the Rose Bowl."