He adds a twist to his legacy

Times Staff Writer

When Justin Hickman was growing up in Glendale, Ariz., he loved to put on his father's old football gear.

Nearly every day, young Justin would proudly step into the oversized shorts, socks, shoes and cardinal and gold jerseys that his father, Donnie, had worn as an all-conference offensive lineman for USC in the mid-1970s.

"USC was the only talk in the house," said Bridget Hickman, Justin's mother. "There was a television with an 'SC game on every Saturday. Yes, I would say Justin was an 'SC kid."

One who grew up to be a UCLA man.

On Saturday at the Rose Bowl, Hickman played a major role in helping the Bruins end a seven-game losing streak against USC. And today, don't be surprised if he makes his first All-American team when the Walter Camp choices are announced.

The senior defensive end made three tackles and knocked down one pass in UCLA's 13-9 upset of USC, but those statistics don't tell the entire story. The pressure he applied from the outside along with bookend Bruce Davis II forced Trojans quarterback John David Booty to hurry into several poor throws and the USC offense -- which had scored 20 or more points in an NCAA-record 63 consecutive games -- never found a rhythm.

This occurred against a highly regarded Trojans offensive line, a place in which his father once dominated.

"Justin has always been passionate about football," Bridget said. "I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that, at 3 years old, he would sit and watch a whole football game and seem to understand what was going on. He probably didn't know what an athlete was, but he acted like one."

And when he did, it was always as a player for USC. But all that changed once Hickman blossomed into a Division I recruit.

After playing under the radar as an undersized lineman at St. Mary's High in Phoenix, Hickman added nearly 30 pounds of muscle onto his 6-foot-2 frame at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College.

The increased size and strength helped Hickman develop into a hot prospect for several schools in the Pacific 10 Conference. Oregon, Washington State, Arizona State and UCLA offered him football scholarships.

But not USC. The school his parents attended and the program that ran a summer camp where he won MVP honors before his senior year in high school didn't want him.

"Coming out of high school, I was a big USC fan because that's what I grew up around," Hickman said. "But when it came time for me to sign out of junior college, it didn't matter. They would call and then they wouldn't call. It got to the point where I just wanted to go somewhere. I understand that it's all a business."

Pete Carroll recalls thinking Hickman "was a little undersized."

"But he was always fast and then he turned out to be a great player," the USC coach added. "We screwed it up."

UCLA didn't. Hickman has grown into a founding partner of the "Westwood Sack Exchange," teaming with Davis to form the nation's top duo at sacking the quarterback. A three-year starter, Hickman this season is tied for second nationally and tied for first in the Pacific 10 Conference in sacks with 12.5 -- 1.04 a game. After making first-team All-Pac-10, he is a candidate to make several All-American teams before he plays in his final college game, against Florida State in the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 27.

"He's getting a lot of attention now, and rightfully so," UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said. "I'm just so happy for him. He put in a lot of work on himself during the off-season. He's done a great job as a leader."

Hickman displayed his leadership skills after UCLA's dramatic 20-17 loss at Notre Dame on Oct. 21. While most of the Bruins were emotional and at a loss for words in the locker room after the game, Hickman stood firm and answered every question asked by reporters.

It wasn't until the room was nearly empty and many of his teammates were on a team bus preparing to leave that Hickman finally broke down, bitter that his career-high eight tackles, including three solo sacks, had not been enough.

Before UCLA defeated USC last week, Hickman said he was "over any hang-ups" about playing the Trojans.

At UCLA, he found what he was seeking -- an opportunity to play immediately, the Bruins' having lost their top four defensive ends from the previous season. But even though he led the team with 5.5 in sacks last season, UCLA's defense was porous the last two years and Hickman never really distinguished himself.

Before the start of this season, Hickman dedicated himself to become a better player.

"I stayed at UCLA all summer and worked out harder than I had ever done before," Hickman said. "I made one of my goals to be an All-American this season. That's how I wanted to play."

Now, as he looks back, Hickman says he has no regrets.

"Before Justin made his college decision, we sat down as a family in the living room and weighed the pros and cons of each school," Bridget said. "At the end, when it came down to UCLA, I rationalized that maybe it's not meant for Justin to follow in his father's footsteps and it was time for him to make his own path.

"That's exactly what he's done."

Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.


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