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In Year 2, Hicks Takes Charge Of Defense

Jordan Hicks accepts the challenge,  and it's a large one, as the middle linebacker of a defense that will play with a downhill mentality 180 degrees opposite of what the Eagles defense did in 2015, his rookie season. The Kid sure has been asked to grow up in a hurry in the NFL.

We saw it last season, how the third-round pick from Texas who was supposed to have a "redshirt" rookie year was instead tossed in the ocean with no life raft to hold. Injuries forced Hicks onto the field, and he excelled from the jump, igniting an Eagles defense looking for a spark.

Hicks was a dynamo in the first half of the season, playing in all eight games (five starts).  Hicks led the team with 54 tackles, led the NFL with three fumble recoveries, and led all NFL rookies with seven impact plays (2 interceptions, 1 quarterback sack, 1 forced fumble and 3 fumble recoveries).

But in that eighth game, the win over Dallas in overtime, Hicks suffered a torn pectoral muscle and his season was over.

"It was rough. I had been through some stuff in college and just to go through that again after having such a good year and being able to kind of find my groove and then it being cut short is tough," Hicks said. "I felt like I could have made a difference. You live with it and you learn to grow with it and you come out a better person and a better player afterwards."

Hicks is all the way back from the injury and is, in fact, stronger now than he was as a rook. He's in charge of the defense, one that takes its cue from coordinator Jim Schwartz.

Nobody is laying back in this defense. The Eagles are going to attack.

"Aggressive," Hicks said. "Everything we do is attack and I think we heavily rely on our D-line to set the tone and then the linebackers and everybody behind is filling and coming downhill aggressively. It's a fearless defense. You've got to be fearless to play it.

"It's going to be physical. Very physical. You can expect aggressiveness, physicality … I keep going back to aggressive. That's what this whole thing is. We're going to come downhill and play fast."

The concept of the defense is, as Schwartz said the other day in his press conference, very simple in its philosophy and challenging to execute: the defensive linemen win by getting off the ball at the snap and shooting a gap, and then the linebackers fill in the remaining gaps. Everybody has a gap. Everybody has a responsibility. The idea is to take it to the offense, to dictate and to win the line of scrimmage and to wreak havoc.

There are plenty of ways to win on defense in the NFL, and clearly the Eagles are taking a hugely different approach from last season. Hicks was an inside linebacker in the 3-4 front as a rookie. He's got a similar perspective this time around, although the game plan is far from what he did as a rookie.

"It's a lot different. Just the philosophy in general is different. Our D line two-gapped and our linebackers played a little bit side to side," Hicks said. "Everybody's got a gap this year and it's your responsibility to take control of it.

"Coach Schwartz and everybody will tell you that his focus is to make it easy for the D-line, make them just go. He's told the linebackers to play off of them and that's what we're taught to do and that's what we do. I'm excited. Can't wait to get out there Game 1 to get out there and show the progress that we've made as a team and all of the training and everything that we've gone through in the offseason. We're still in the mix of things and still have Training Camp coming up, but it's exciting and I'm real proud of everything that has gone on so far."

The 84th selection in the 2015 draft, Hicks battled some injuries at Texas and then suffered the season-ending one at Dallas. Hicks knows he has a lot to prove this season in a lot of ways. He's in charge of the defense in his second season. He has a lot of responsibilities. He needs to stay on the field for the whole year.

Hicks is in a different place than he was a year ago, when he was just another rookie scrambling to understand the ways of the NFL. His footing is firm now and he knows the next step for his career is a big one.

"It is so much easier now, just because you don't have that pressure. As a rookie coming in here – if you don't know the schedule of a rookie, they're here every day until 5 o'clock. We're done by 2, 2:30 – just all of that pressure of meshing with everybody and figuring out the defense and not knowing what's going on and not knowing what to expect is another huge thing," he said. "Having a year under your belt and being able to see and having that feel of what's going to come makes it so much easier.

"I think I still have stuff to prove. I've got to prove I can stay healthy. I've got to prove I can play every single game in the NFL. In my head, I have so much more to accomplish. It was just my rookie year. I understand the big scheme of things."

The big scheme is this: The Eagles have to take all of Schwartz's brilliance in devising a system that plays into the strengths of each individual and make it work as an all 11-man-in defense.

"What you have to have is execution. You've got to have good players who understand the scheme, whether it's a 3-4 or a 4-3. It doesn't matter, as long as everybody has bought in and everybody has the same mindset of execution," Hicks said. "That's what makes a defense work. That's what we're out here doing every day."

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