Late-blooming Hickman has scouts buzzing around

August 28, 1994|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

Kevin Hickman knows they are watching his every move, scribbling in their notepads and putting the information away for future use.

No, the Naval Academy senior tight end is not the subject of a spy hunt. But Hickman is under scrutiny by NFL scouts evaluating him as a possible draft choice next season.

"When we screened players on film over the summer, we liked him," said San Diego Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, who plans to watch Hickman personally this fall. "Six-five, 250, 4.78 [40-yard -- time], good hands. We like him a lot. We put Navy down as a definite school call."

"I'm aware of them at some of our practices, but I'm trying to concentrate on just having the best season possible," Hickman said while preparing for the 1994 opener against San Diego State next Saturday. "And I know, they're also keeping an eye on Jim Kubiak."

There's just one hitch for Hickman and Kubiak, the quarterback. Both are committed to a five-year service obligation after graduation. Former New York Giants wide receiver Phil McConkey (Class of 1979) and former Raiders running back Napoleon McCallum (Class of 1985) were the last two Navy players able to keep an NFL career going while fulfilling their obligation.

But Hickman and Kubiak decided to remain at the academy for their senior years anyway. And the Kubiak-to-Hickman passing combination will be a key ingredient in the Midshipmen's offense this season.

Kubiak, who broke 10 academy passing records last season, is blessed with a strong arm. Hickman, at 6 feet 5 and a bulked-up 252 pounds, makes an inviting target.

"Hickman is like a prototype tight end," said Navy coach George Chaump. "The way he approaches the game, he reminds me of Mike Ditka. I'm not saying he's going to be another Hall of Famer, but he's got that same toughness about him. When he catches a pass, he'd rather run through you than around you."

This straightforward approach proved a mixed blessing for Hickman last year, when he earned ECAC All-East honors. He caught 39 passes for 479 yards, including a career-high eight receptions against Louisville. But he was also guilty of costly fumbles in losses to Louisville and Vanderbilt when he attempted to run over would-be tacklers.

"He was using the arm with the ball as a battering ram, and sometimes it cost him," said Chaump.

Hickman worked this spring on improving his speed and elusiveness.

"I spent a lot of time playing catch with Kubiak," he said. "I worked especially hard on holding onto the ball. But I've also tried to perfect running my pass patterns and blocking."

Hickman classifies himself as a late bloomer. He had an undistinguished high school career playing for Holy Cross High in Delran, N.J.

"I guess the only thing remarkable about it was that my football coach was the old slugger for the Phillies, Greg Luzinski," said Hickman.

"Greg seemed to be as knowledgeable about football as baseball. He knew how to take talent on hand and get the most out of it."

When Hickman graduated from high school, he was eager to resume his football career, preferably at a military academy. But he realized he needed to get bigger and quicker, in addition to improving his grades.

His cousin, Bob Hickman, and brother-in-law, Mike Klemick, steered him to the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas, where he blossomed as a sure-handed receiver and powerful blocker.

"Texas seemed just far enough away from everything I wanted to get away from back home," he said. "It gave me a chance to grow up on my own."

Navy scouts kept close watch on Hickman, worrying he might choose to play college football in Texas.

"Greg had a girlfriend in Texas, and we were afraid he was going to stay down there," said Chaump. "We just got lucky."

Old Navy ties didn't hurt in the recruiting process. Mike Klemick's father, Ron Klemick, was the starting quarterback for the Midshipmen in the early 1960s before losing his job to someone named Roger Staubach.

"Klemick was part of it," Hickman said. "But I'd visited the academy a few times, and really liked the school, the setting and the chance to play a big-time schedule."

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