ST. PETERSBURG — Coming out of Tampa Bay Tech two years ago, Greg Hickman had offers from more established programs in bigger conferences such as Purdue and USF, but the sheer persistence of Florida International's recruiting efforts eventually won him over.
"Every day was a phone call. I don't want to say smothered, but every day they were letting you know they really wanted you," Hickman said of the Panthers' calls. "I really felt needed. And once I visited campus, I liked it here from Day 1."
Hickman gets a homecoming of sorts Tuesday night as FIU plays Marshall in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl at Tropicana Field, and his phone is ringing again, this time from a slew of relatives excited to see him play so close to home.
"When they said it was a possibility for us to have this bowl, I was ecstatic," the 6-foot-1, 274-pound defensive end said. "I've never played a college game where so many people from my family could attend. I have like 30 tickets I have to get."
After a quiet eight tackles his freshman year, Hickman has 33 this season and leads the Panthers with five sacks, part of 11 overall tackles for loss. He has come up with big plays in key situations, like a fourth-down stop in the fourth quarter of a September upset of Louisville, making a strong impression on Panthers coach Mario Cristobal.
"Greg started flashing last year, where you could see the potential and the ability that he possessed that made him such a priority for us," Cristobal said. "Greg is showing the ability to take over games in certain situations. … He's growing up and growing up fast. He well knows he has a lot of work to do, but I think the sky's the limit for him. I'm really happy for him to come home and play in front of his family and friends."
When Hickman signed with FIU, the Panthers had never been to a bowl, but the program beat Toledo in the Little Caesars Bowl last season.
Hickman, who started his high school career at Middleton, primarily played linebacker at Tampa Bay Tech, though his coach there, C.C. Culpepper, said he could have made an impact at a number of positions.
"He could have been our starting fullback, our starting tight end, at D-end. He was that athletic," said Culpepper, now an assistant at Grambling. "What I liked about him was his attitude and his love of the game. He was an emotional leader on our defense, our Ray Lewis. He was what you want your linebacker to look like: big and strong and able to run from sideline to sideline."
Cristobal saw the size and athleticism he wanted at defensive end, and he said Hickman now has the strength to play defensive tackle in some packages and the coverage skills to go back to middle linebacker if necessary.
"One of the finer things in recruiting is you have to project," Cristobal said. "In high school they have to put their best players wherever they need them to survive and win football games. ... He's on all our special teams. You're looking at a guy who's 275 pounds, runs probably a 4.7. He's an impressive athlete, and when he's determined to be physical from snap to whistle, he's really tough to block."
Hickman has found a home at defensive end, and at FIU, but if Cristobal came to him in a pinch, he wouldn't hesitate to move elsewhere on the field.
"I believe I can play any position," he said.