Studious Hakeem Nicks the Early Star of Rookie WR Class
But they say luck is the residue of design, and the people who know Hakeem Nicks say that design is a huge part of his game. Coaches and teammates past and present describe Nicks as an intensely studious, hyper-prepared player who obsesses over his playbook and game scripts and would rather talk about route-running than anything else. Knowing Nicks means knowing that the seeds of that Sunday night play were planted years ago at Independence High School in Charlotte, N.C., where a coach named Tommy Knotts drills 16- and 17-year-old kids on something even NFL coaches struggle to get across -- the importance of film study.
"I was fortunate enough to play for a high school that was No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation," Nicks said. "And our coach, that was his big thing -- understanding the importance of the film. I didn't look too far down the line with it, but it definitely prepared me for the college game. I felt like I had a head start when I got there."
A starter as a true freshman, Nicks blossomed into a superstar at the University of North Carolina. This past April, the Giants selected him with the No. 29 pick in the NFL Draft. At the time, Giants coach Tom Coughlin said the team had received positive reports about Nicks not just as an athlete but as a hard off-the-field worker and a leader in the meeting room because of his study habits and his knowledge of the game.
"He's an attentive young guy that wants to be good," Coughlin said last week. "Anybody that wants to be good and is willing to pay the price, I normally like."
Since overcoming an early season injury, Nicks has moved quickly up the Giants' depth chart, emerging as a reliable target for Eli Manning and something of a co-No. 2 receiver with Manningham behind Steve Smith. He's caught a touchdown pass in four straight games, and among a rookie WR class that includes six guys taken in the first round, he's creating a blueprint for how to succeed in the NFL as a rookie receiver.
"It's about going out there and doing everything perfectly at full speed, and he's learned that already," Manning said. "That gets you on the field."
Wide receiver is not a position at which it's easy to have success right away in the pros. Giants fans remember the frustration of watching Amani Toomer take two or three years before he knew his routes. No less a light than Jerry Rice struggled to adjust at the beginning. But when you watch somebody like Michael Crabtree sit out for months over a contract dispute and then have the debut he had Sunday, or somebody like Jeremy Maclin have the impact he's had already in Philadelphia, you can identify the common thread and the keys to speeding up the learning curve. These guys are playbook savants with killer study habits and an appreciation of the extent to which preparedness can help them success. Hakeem Nicks is the ultimate example.
"Hakeem has the passion and the drive to be good," North Carolina head coach Butch Davis said in a phone interview this week. "So it's easy for him to buy into the mindset that if you want more, you have to do more. He really embodies all that stuff, and you see it in the mindset that you've really got to be a film-room junkie."
The biggest problem rookie receivers face in making the jump from college to the NFL lies in the deceptiveness of the defenses they face -- the length of time for which secondaries will disguise coverages, giving away as little as possible until the last split-second before the snap. Speed, athleticism, great hands ... first-round WRs have all of these things. The physical part of the game isn't the toughest part of the adjustment. It's figuring out what defenses are going to try and how to attack them once you have the information. The thing that makes Nicks successful is that he has the information.
"He's big on knowing what the defender's going to do, because he's studied it and he can tell you in a New York second," North Carolina receivers coach Charlie Williams said in a phone interview. "Hakeem is going to be on the same page as that quarterback, and he knows he's going to be able to beat you."
Example. Two weeks ago, in garbage time of a blowout loss in New Orleans, David Carr had taken over for Manning as quarterback. Nicks ran a go route and found the defense in a Cover 2. Carr said most receivers, finding that, will give up on their routes. But he and Nicks had been talking all game, watching the Saints' defense and realizing that the safety was "tight" in the Cover 2 -- meaning he'd be late in getting over to the numbers to cover Nicks if he kept running as fast as he could. Which he did, and Carr hit him for a touchdown.
"He was flying, because he knew he had a chance," Carr said. "And that's something a lot of guys wouldn't do, even older guys."
For Nicks, that touchdown came right out of a midweek film room.
"That definitely came from film," Nicks said. "The coaches put a lot of emphasis on that when we watched (the Saints) on film."
The trick, of course, is to remember it on Sundays. But when you're the kind of guy who walks out of the film room and keeps talking -- all week -- about what you learned in there, you're the kind of guy who remembers on Sundays.
"This guy, every time you walk up to him off the field, the initial conversation is about some kind of route he ran that day," Carr said. "You have to get through that, then you can talk to him about what's going on in his life. But he'd rather talk about something he saw on the film. It's almost like it's ingrained in him somehow, like he learned at an early age that he's got to do his job right."
He did. And as he's grown older, Nicks has maintained and strengthened his belief in the connection between the work he does off the field and the success he has on it. His teammates and coaches marvel and appreciate.
"It reiterates to the other guys on the team how important it is," Williams said. "Now some of our young guys are starting to get it -- what it takes to be a pro -- because they have a living example of somebody who did it the right way, who paid attention to the right things and now he's playing for the New York Giants on Sundays. That's invaluable for a coach."
Back at Chapel Hill, Williams and Davis would tell their kids to watch the tape of Nicks' miracle catch from Sunday night. The play was for Manningham, half a field away from where Nicks was running his route, and Nicks knew that. He knew where all of his teammates and all of his opponents were supposed to be on the field, and he raced over toward Manningham's side, thinking he could maybe make a helpful block. As he ran over, he saw the ball in the air, and so he took it, and he ended up with a touchdown. Lucky play? Sure. But a receiver who hadn't paid attention all week might not have been in position to be so lucky.
"He's got great football instincts, and that's mainly the result of the work he puts in," Davis said. "That doesn't surprise me, that he got a touchdown because he was hustling over to make a block."
Didn't surprise Nicks either. He's just doing what he's been doing since high school. It's still working because Nicks never stops working.
"I think I'm just me being me out there," Nicks said. "It's just built in me to go hard every play. I like working hard and outworking my opponent."