There is a common belief in sports that the quickest way to improve is to compete against the very best.
If that’s the case, then Damel Hickman may be one of the most talented prospects in East Carolina’s football recruiting Class of 2018.
Hickman has been a secondary starter at state 4-A powerhouse Butler High in Matthews since his sophomore season and has helped the Bulldogs to a 25-6 overall record, including 3-1 this year. During that time the 6-foot, 180-pounder has found himself matched against some of North Carolina’s best receivers.
As a sophomore, Hickman took the field against Kansas State signee and current Appalachian State receiver Corey Sutton (Mallard Creek) and current UNC defensive back Myles Doren, who was also a standout pass catcher at Vance High.
A year ago, Hickman went head-to-head with Oklahoma recruit Ryan Jones (Mallard Creek) and future ECU teammate Blake Proehl (Providence), along with Duke commit Jarrett Gardner (Hickory Ridge). Hickman will get to see Gardner again this season when Butler meets Hickory Ridge next month.
“That’s Charlotte football,” Hickman said, describing the level of talent he’s faced. “Every Friday you’re going up against D-I talent.”
Hickman considers the matchup against the 6-1, 219-pound Jones, who many analysts consider the state’s best senior talent in 2016, one of his career highlights. Jones’ Mallard Creek squad had eliminated Butler from the state 4-A playoffs three straight years before their rematch last November.
Jones was the target for a pass by Mallard Creek quarterback Chauncey Caldwell in the third quarter with the score tied at 21. But Hickman managed to step in front to make an interception at the Butler 30-yard line. The Bulldogs scored the go-ahead touchdown following Hickman’s pick and rolled to a 42-28 victory.
“That interception was a game changer,” Hickman said. “Ryan Jones is a big-time athlete, so getting that pick against him was something I’ll always remember.”
Hickman hasn’t just honed his defensive back talents by playing against some of the state’s premier receivers. He was also tutored by a pair of skilled secondary players in step brother Jacobe Clement and former Butler star Clifton Duck.
Clement was a starting cornerback for two seasons at South Mecklenburg High in Charlotte before transferring to Mallard Creek for his senior year in 2016. Clement made a verbal commitment to play for N.C. State in June ’16, but backed off that pledge in September. He wound up signing with NCAA Division II Fayetteville State and is seeing significant action with the Broncos as a true freshman this season.
Duck was a four-year starter at Butler, and was a junior when Hickman made his debut with the Bulldogs junior varsity team as a freshman. He’s now a sophomore starter at Appalachian State, where he earned Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year honors in 2016.
“Those guys showed me the way,” Hickman said. “Jacobe and I worked out together all the time. He helped me with my work ethic. Clifton, he was my role model. Ever since I was a freshman I looked at him as a big brother. They showed me how to get to the next level.”
It was because of his step brother Jacobe that Hickman was already familiar with the East Carolina football program when he decided to attend a prospect camp hosted by Wingate University in Charlotte last June. ECU defensive backs coach Brandon Lynch helped out at the camp and put Hickman through a variety of drills that day. Hickman impressed Lynch in many ways, including a 4.4-second timing in the 40-yard dash.
When the day came to an end, Lynch extended a scholarship offer to Hickman, who accepted on the spot (June 18).
“My step brother Jacobe had an offer from them, so I had been on campus a lot at ECU,” Hickman said. “I love the campus and the coaches are great. I knew it was a good place for me.”
The Pirates were the first team to offer Hickman a scholarship, although Appalachian State, Duke, N.C. Central and Western Carolina were showing interest.
Hickman says the Pirates are getting a cornerback who excels at one-on-one coverage.
“My strength is my man coverage,” Hickman said. “I can play zone, too, but I like going one-on-one with receivers. I try not to let a lot of passes get caught on me.”
Butler is using Hickman in a dual capacity this season by playing him on offense at wide receiver. He contributed at both positions in a 26-25 victory against Providence on September 15. Hickman caught a 50-yard touchdown pass and produced an interception in the Bulldogs’ second win of the season.
A week later in a 16-0 shutout of Rocky River, Hickman added another interception.
Hickman is the second cornerback prospect from the Charlotte area to make a verbal commitment to ECU. He joins Austin Richardson, who plays at Butler’s Southwestern 4-A Conference rival Porter Ridge, in the Class of 2018.