A big loss in high school helped turn Immanuel “Manny” Hickman into a winner in the football recruiting game.
Hickman, a defensive end from Matoaco High School in Chesterfield, VA, was one of the last additions to East Carolina’s recruiting Class of 2019. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder waited until signing day on February 6th to reveal his decision to become a Pirate after mulling over scholarship offers from more than 20 other schools, including American Athletic Conference members Cincinnati, Central Florida, Temple and Tulane.
But flash back to the fall of 2014. Hickman is a 275-pound eighth grader newly arrived at Matoaco from another Richmond-area school. His size and talent immediately catch the eye of the coaching staff, who assign him to the Matoaco junior varsity that season.
“As soon as he showed up we knew he was going to be a really good football player for us,” said Jay Parker, the current Matoaco head coach who was an assistant at the time. “We told him if he worked his tail off he could be a Division I football player. Of course, you can’t just say it. You have to put in the hard work.
“That was easy for Immanuel. He didn’t have to be motivated by someone else to work hard.”
Hickman easily made the transition from junior varsity to varsity, where he made an immediate impact on the defensive line as a freshman and sophomore. But despite that early success, Hickman knew he needed to become even more mobile and athletic to fulfill his goal of becoming a Football Bowl Subdivision recruit.
Parker, a Matoaca graduate and former college kicker at NCAA Division II Virginia State, witnessed a major physical transition in which Hickman lost almost 40 pounds of weight between his sophomore and junior seasons.
“He wanted to improve his footwork and be able to move better in space,” Parker said. “He really reshaped his body to be more athletic and move more freely on the football field. Nobody made him do it. It was something he wanted to do and he did an amazing job.”
The result was a breakout junior season in 2017 for Hickman. He racked up 130 total tackles, made 10.5 tackles for loss, forced nine fumbles and recovered seven to earn second-team All-Class 5, Region B honors.
Parker recalls a late-season performance by Hickman against Prince George that really stood out. Hickman was a one-man wrecking crew in the 28-21 win for Matoaca, racking up 13 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks.
“We were mounting a comeback in the fourth quarter,” Parker said. “He came in and had two big sacks, forced fumbles – all the good stuff that brought us back in the game.”
The junior-year performance earned Hickman a unique opportunity during the summer prior to his senior season. He and new ECU teammate Rick D’Abreu were both chosen to represent the United States on the under-19 team competing in the 2018 International Federation of American Football World Championship.
Held every two years, the IFAF World Championship brings six nations together in a tournament format. Hickman and D’Abreu spent nine days in July in a training camp at Northern Arizona University before heading to Mexico for the competition. The U.S. squad reached the semifinals of the tournament before being beaten by host Mexico in Mexico City’s Olympic Stadium before a crowd of 15,000.
Hickman played in all three games for the United States squad and was even named team captain.
“He was only there for a short time, but became a person people gravitated toward leadership-wise,” Parker said. “He learned enough to lead people he didn’t even know. It was a great experience for him in a lot of ways.”
Just before reporting to the IFAF training camp, Hickman announced a decision that surprised many in the Richmond community. He gave a verbal commitment to the University of Cincinnati after making an unofficial visit to campus.
East Carolina’s previous coaching staff had recruited Hickman as well. But it was only after Mike Houston took over the Pirate program in early December that Hickman began to take a serious look at ECU. Houston and his staff had also been pursuing Hickman while they were still at James Madison.
“Of course, he originally chose Cincinnati, but decided not to go there,” said Parker, who was promoted to head coach at Matoaco for the 2018 season. “I think part of that was the distance from home. He’s a big family man, and he wanted them around. Cincinnati just wasn’t as accessible as East Carolina would be for his family.
“Once he decommitted from Cincinnati (on December 12), East Carolina became the frontrunner. He had already developed a positive relationship with that staff when they were at James Madison.”
Parker believes Hickman will be ready to make a contribution at ECU immediately next fall.
“He’s very physically mature,” Parker said. “He has a very good grasp and knowledge of the game as far as having a good football IQ. I’m not sure how complicated East Carolina will be on defense. And I always say an incoming freshman could benefit from a redshirt year. But at the same time I could see him coming in and contributing quickly because he’s determined and will work his tail off. There is no question about that. He’s pretty versatile, too. He could be a rush end, a contain defensive end or slide inside as a three technique.”
Hickman, who produced 50 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and six sacks as a senior, will be joined at ECU next fall by Matoaco teammate Jonathan “Deuce” Coleman. Coleman, a defensive back, is a preferred walk-on who had offers from Alabama State, Virginia State and others before deciding to become a Pirate.
The 6-1, 195-pound Coleman played a number of roles at Matoaco, seeing action at running back and defensive back and was even the team’s punter. He rushed for 448 yards and six touchdowns and caught five passes for 30 yards as a senior. On defense, Coleman had 29 tackles (three for a loss of yardage), two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and two pass break-ups.
“He’s a bigger, more in-the-box kind of safety,” Parker said of Coleman. “He’s a versatile player as well.”