JORDAN HICKS WAS THE TYPE OF RECRUIT WHO HAD TO HOLD A WEEKLY TELECONFERENCE. ("My coach was getting grief because I wasn't picking up my phone," he explains.) His highlight video included punishing hits, interceptions and a fake punt he took 65 yards for a touchdown. During one week in December of Hicks's senior year at Lakota West High outside Cincinnati, Florida coach Urban Meyer, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and Texas coach Mack Brown all met with or expressed interest in him. That was one week after a certain Hall of Fame linebacker dropped by to tell Hicks he had won the high school version of the 2009 Butkus Award, named for that very linebacker.
That January, Hicks—the nation's top-ranked linebacker—pulled out a Longhorns hat at his press conference to announce his college decision. "A lot of people gave me a hard time," he remembers of the decision to spurn Ohio State. "I had always seen myself going somewhere far and taking a chance and meeting new people and experiencing new things."
His journey to becoming an Academic All--Big 12 linebacker began long before that pick of Texas—but it was hardly a direct trip. When he was four, Jordan began playing organized basketball at the YMCA and dreamed of playing in the NBA. He had been dunking on the tiny hoop in his home since he was two, and he idolized Michael Jordan; he had the clothes, the shoes, the posters in his room. In junior high, along with playing football, he was on a traveling AAU hoops team. He made Lakota West's varsity basketball team as a freshman guard. Then it happened. "I started getting [college] offers for football and basketball but definitely bigger offers for football," says Hicks. "It was kind of like, Maybe this is where my future's at."
As a senior at Lakota West, Hicks decided his immediate future would play out at Texas. He and his mother, Kelly Justice, had been impressed with the coaches, the campus and the city when he attended a Longhorns football camp the summer after his sophomore year. "It's hard not to love this place," says Hicks of Austin. "I just remember walking away and thinking, I could see myself going there."
As a true freshman Hicks dabbled in special teams and served spot duty at linebacker, finishing 2010 with 23 tackles. Expectations were high going into spring practice last year, but Hicks broke his foot a month in and missed the rest of the spring. Then during the 2011 regular season, with seniors Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho firmly entrenched in the middle and on the weak side, Hicks stepped in on the strong side, a position that doesn't always see the field in the nickel package Texas often runs. Because of that, and a nagging hamstring injury, he "didn't really get into the flow of the season," as coordinator Manny Diaz puts it, though Hicks did start eight games and had 65 tackles. "We just hadn't been able to showcase him." With a month off before the Holiday Bowl to get his hamstring healthy, Hicks came out against Cal and had eight tackles, including a sack.
Now Texas's most experienced linebacker, Hicks is slotted to play on the weak side but could also step into the middle. And he's transitioned into a role as a vocal leader. "I'm a lot more comfortable in the system," says Hicks, who was known to give Ray Lewis--type motivational speeches before Lakota West games. "I just want to be a better player and put my name out there and become somebody teams fear."