Faion Hicks knew he could run fast. His teammates and coaches at Wisconsin knew, too. The problem was outside of the Badgers program it appeared no one was aware of Hicks’ speed.
His agent even told him there was a path to be taken in the NFL draft in the middle of Day 3 – but he had to show scouts he was fast.
There was just one opportunity for Hicks to show off his wheels: Wisconsin’s Pro Day. He didn’t disappoint. In fact, he even surprised himself.
Hicks ran 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash – which would have ranked him fifth among cornerbacks at the NFL combine and faster than projected first-round picks Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (4.41) of Cincinnati and Washington’s Trent McDuffie (4.44).
“I was really shooting for 4.39,” Hicks admitted.
The result, as well as some of the other numbers Hicks put up in the day’s testing, had its desired effect. Teams which had previously disregarded him were now contacting the cornerback and going back to check out his film.
Hicks understood the situation. He was one of the fastest players on Wisconsin – among a group of players, including running backs Isaac Guerendo and Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Kendric Pryor, who would occasionally race after practice. But those three players all played on offense, where they had chances to showcase their speed. Hicks tried to nudge his way in for some offensive plays during his time with the Badgers – he played running back in high school before devoting himself as a corner -- but head coach Paul Chryst and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard “kind of brushed it off.” He also was the emergency kick returner, but that never became a necessity.
“I was really fighting with the coaches to get the ball in my hands so I could really show people how fast I was,” Hicks said with a laugh.
Hicks also understood the stigma surrounding the Wisconsin program and especially the secondary. As in: They aren’t fast and system players. The competition (not counting Ohio State, which Hicks would have loved to have faced this year so he could have gotten on tape defending Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, both expected to be selected in the first round of this year’s draft) mostly didn’t help, either.
“Outside the program with scouts and stuff, they kind of thought in the Big Ten they don’t play a lot of fast receivers – which we really don’t,” Hicks said. “I wouldn’t call the Big Ten a blazing conference. With that and certain teams that we played, it was just a question of ‘How fast is he?’ … When I was deciding whether to come back or school or not, I knew that was the No. 1 question.”
Said defensive lineman Matt Henningsen, who came to Wisconsin the same year as Hicks: “It did not surprise us that he ran the way he did at our Pro Day. People always talk about Wisconsin, that Wisconsin doesn’t have the athletes that other programs have when we really do. There’s a reason we’re winning these games – because the players are good.”
Hicks knew he had only one chance to make an impression. There was no invitation to the combine for him nor any of the postseason events, such as the Senior Bowl, East-West Shrine Game and NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
“I was definitely disappointed, very confused,” Hicks said of his being left out in the pre-draft process. “We had the No. 1 defense in the country and the No. 4 passing defense in the country and you don’t do that without having good players. … Definitely surprised, but I didn’t let it discourage me. I knew once people turned on the tape it would open their eyes. And I knew when Pro Day came, I’d show everybody why they should have invited me. It was added motivation, but definitely a surprise.”
In college, players don’t work on getting faster. It’s more about strength and conditioning. With time to train for his Pro Day, Hicks made sure speed was an element of his training. No matter where it took him, even to a tiny strip mall in the northern part of Ft. Lauderdale.
Growing up, Hicks looked up to Darrelle Revis. The two were similar in height and have roughly the same body type. Plus, Revis was one of the best cornerbacks to play in the NFL, four times named first-team All-Pro and selected to seven Pro Bowls. There are definitely worse guys to emulate.
As it turned out, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard played with Revis in the New York Jets’ secondary from 2009-12. Hicks used his time with Leonhard wisely. He’d ask questions about Revis. Leonhard even shared practice and game film of Revis – not to mention cutups of more than 20 other NFL cornerbacks – which Hicks studied constantly (and still does).
“One reason Revis was the best is he was so consistent … in his technique,” Hicks said. “And that’s a challenge for any corner. Corner, man, you can have the talent but it’s about being consistent play in and play out, and that’s what separated Revis from everybody else. Talking with coach Leonhard, he used to tell me all the time: Don’t worry about the talent, just worry about being consistent every play and that’s what I tried to do at my time at Wisconsin, just be consistent every play and make the plays that came my way.”
One reason Hicks returned to Wisconsin in 2021 was because Leonhard, who interviewed for Green Bay’s defensive coordinator job last offseason, stayed with the Badgers. In fact, Hicks flat-out said if Leonhard left, he would have gone to the NFL.
Instead, it was one more year of asking, learning and getting better.
“Just his knowledge with him playing 10 years in the league, you could ask him anything and he’d literally pull it up and show you,” Hicks said.
In 2020, because scouts in part wanted to see fellow Badgers cornerback Rachad Wildgoose play on the outside, Hicks played a lot of slot in Wisconsin’s nickel defense. This past season, Hicks was back on the outside, often following an opponent’s No. 1 receiver. He’d even go to Leonhard and request to shadow certain players.
“Wanted to show I was a lockdown corner,” Hicks explained.
Leonhard gave Hicks the “green light” to move inside if he wanted, but not enamored with the opposing slot receivers he kept to the outside. The experience from 2020, though, was invaluable – especially when thinking about his potential future.
“Once teams saw that, this kid can move inside and out, it helped me a lot,” Hicks said. “Scouts want to see how versatile you are. … The more you can do, the more it helps you.”
After a fourth year of starting at Wisconsin – and getting his degree in December, which was another reason he returned in 2021 – Hicks decided, and with the suggestion of Leonhard that he was ready, it was time to move on.
Hicks signed with agent Neil Schwartz, who just happened to represent Revis when the cornerback was making his way from the University of Pittsburgh to the NFL.
Schwartz had a suggestion for Hicks, a way to improve his core strength, flexibility … and speed: Pilates. Hicks wasn’t sure. After all, he already had over four hours combined of training during the day (over two sessions) plus getting treatment. Schwartz said that NFL players did this – including Revis.
So, after his day-long training and treatment, Hicks headed to Club Pilates on N. Federal Highway in Ft. Lauderdale for a daily 7 p.m. two-hour session where he was easily the youngest person in the class.
Hicks said Pilates not only helped with his speed but also with his hips, which in turn made his moves at cornerback go smoother.
It all led up to his Pro Day. Hicks said he wasn’t nervous. He was more anxious to prove what he could do and show scouts they should sit up and take notice.
Before Pro Day, Hicks was anonymous. After, he said, “It was crazy … I had a lot of teams come up to me.” Among those who talked to Hicks were the Chargers, Colts, Commanders, Dolphins (with who he also had a workout) and Lions.
“The problem was a lot of teams didn’t know a lot about me,” Hicks said. “After Pro Day when people went back and were like ‘Oh, who is this guy,’ and they started watching tape, then it was like, ‘Oh, this kid is actually good.’
“It was more so getting people to watch the film. That’s what I wanted to do, go to scouts and be like, hey pay attention to me … and a lot of scouts went back and watched tape on me and they saw how physical I was in the run game, making plays on the ball, technique and my speed. It was more getting scouts to pay attention to me since they didn’t really know much about me, it was more getting them to watch the tape and see how actually good I am.”
While he’d like one day to be like Revis, his first goal is to be drafted. Hicks thinks being taken on Day 3 is a real possibility, but either way he knows – drafted or free agent – there will be work to be done to make a team.
A few months ago an NFL opportunity might not even have been on the table. But it all turned around for Hicks quickly -- in 4.37 seconds.