Ironman in the middle for USM

By By Tony Krausz / assistant sports editor
Nov. 19, 2003
HATTIESBURG In the University of Southern Mississippi's last 34 games, a program hasn't been needed to name the Golden Eagles' starting center.
Since the start of the 2001 season, Philadelphia High School graduated Jim Hicks has lined up in the middle of the offensive line for USM without fail.
When the 277-pound, redshirt senior looks back at how many consecutive games he has played, Hicks is at a loss to explain how he has been able to be so durable over the last three seasons at center.
On Thursday, Hicks will line up for a 35th straight game as the Eagle,s nursing a health 7-3 overall record and a perfect 6-0 mark in Conference USA, collide with the undefeated TCU Horned Frogs (10-0, 7-0 C-USA) at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
Hicks called the midweek match up, which will be aired on ESPN at 6:30 p.m., the biggest game of his career.
USM can clinch at least a share of the C-USA title with a victory over TCU for the program's first conference crown since 1999.
The Eagles also have a chance to squelch TCU's BCS bowl game hopes by defeating the No. 10-ranked Horned Frogs, who currently hold the No. 8 spot in the BCS poll.
It is also the type of game Hicks envisioned being a part of every year when he signed with USM.
In his redshirt season of 1999, the Eagles captured their third conference championship in four years. USM won the C-USA crown in 1996 and 1997, as well.
But the program has been unable to reach the top of the league pile since Hicks became a fulltime player in 2000 posting a combined 21-15 mark in Hick's first three seasons as a player.
While Hicks has been on the field for nearly every offensive snap the last three years for the Eagles, his collegiate playing career started with a dark cloud.
Hicks played five games before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 7, 2000, against South Florida. He had won the starting spot after Zeb Landers suffered a career-ending injury in the preseason.
Hicks was able to work his way back to the field to become an ultra-reliable offensive lineman for the Eagles.
The center does admit to being a little wary of his knee in 2001, but he slowly gained confidence that his leg could handle the stress of being in football's trenches.
Hicks is now trying to figure out how to console a teammate dealing with a rough patch in his life, as USM prepares for its conference showdown with TCU.
Dustin Almond, the Eagles staring quarterback since Oct. 25, was dealt a tragic blow after the Eagles' 24-14 win over Tulane last Saturday.
The sophomore signal caller's grandfather, Milton Almond of Bossier City, La., suffered a heart attack the morning of the game and died on Monday.
Almond returned to the practice field the same day as his grandfather's death and has worked out with the team since.
Hicks said it is amazing seeing his friend workout with the team and deal with his personal issues at the same time.
It is the game's importance that has driven the Eagles during their short week of preparation for Horned Frogs.
While TCU has been a thorn in USM's side since entering the league, the Horned Frogs defeated the Eagles in both meetings the last two seasons, Hicks said the squad is not looking at Thursday as a redemption game but instead the team is focused on the conference title.