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January 19, 2014

Inside the mind of Darrin Hicks

Darrin Hicks' world changed in Emporia, Kansas.

A former offensive lineman at Division III Washington & Jefferson University in Pennsylvania, the Weirton, West Virginia native headed out to the home of Division II Emporia State University to begin his college coaching career.

What Hicks found as a graduate assistant opened up a new world of offensive playcalling, and planted the seeds of the style of offense that he wanted to run once he became an offensive coordinator.

"We were a two-back, two-tight end, power, grind it out, three-yards and a cloud of dust style of offense," Hicks said of his time at Washington & Jefferson. "I got to Emporia, and we were completely the opposite. We were run-and-shoot, we were no-huddle. Everything was different."

Over the next decade and a half, Hicks made other stops that helped him refine and tweak his vision as an offensive coordinator. But the genesis of it all was Emporia.

"They were ahead of the curve, really, when it came to the no-huddle and it came to being able to throw the football and do a lot of different things," Hicks said. "That's when I started to formulate my ideas and things I wanted to be able to do and started to put a playbook together."

Seventeen years after his start in Emporia, Hicks is bringing his playbook to Robert Morris. For the first time in 20 years, the Colonials will use an offense that wasn't designed by Joe Walton, who retired as head coach in December. But to understand what that offense will look like, you have to go back to the first time Hicks crossed paths with John Banaszak.

*****

Washington & Jefferson gave Darrin Hicks a chance to play college football, but his college career was always going to be a prelude to his eventual profession: A football coach.

"Since I was as young as I can remember, all I ever wanted to do was be a football coach," Hicks said. "As soon as I graduated from W&J, I went right off and became a graduate assistant and I've been doing it ever since."

While at Washington & Jefferson, Hicks had the opportunity to play in two Division III title games. But he also found two mentors who shaped his coaching career. The first was head coach John Luckhardt, who pushed him to leave the area and take the gig at Emporia.

The other was Banaszak, who now has the distinction of hiring Hicks twice. The first was when he became head coach at W&J, and the second came 11 years later at Robert Morris. The two were first introduced when Hicks was a player at Washington & Jefferson, and stayed in touch throughout Hicks' travels.

"To have the opportunity to be able to come back with him is a true blessing," Hicks said. "He really helped me get into coaching. He wrote a bunch of phone calls for me, a lot of recommendation letters and that sort of thing."

Each stop was a learning experience for Hicks, both positive stops that helped him grow as a coach, as well as lessons from some negative experiences that enabled him to learn how to handle the business of being a college coach. Each stop also brought an exposure to different ideas and offensive philosophies, and Hicks was willing to experiment every time.

"I tell all the guys that I coach with that there is absolutely not a bad idea," Hicks said. "I'm going to come up with a bunch of crazy things and different ideas, and nothing is bad because it may not be exactly what we're looking for, but it may lead us to something amazing."

From Emporia State to Texas State, Cal Lutheran to Washington & Jefferson, Delta State to North Carolina Wesleyan, Hicks tinkered and experimented until he settled on a multiple offense with a variety of looks that can strike a balanced approach.

"What will tie it all together is we really want to push the pace," Hicks said. "We want to be the fastest team in college football."

*****

Joe Walton's offense directed Robert Morris to six Northeast Conference titles. The traditional pro-style offense was reliant on time of possession, a power running game and play-action passes. Hicks' offense likely won't lead the league in time of possession, but he admires what Walton built over decades of coaching.

"I think what he did was fantastic," Hicks said. "To be able to follow a legend is a neat thing to be able to do."

But there will be enough changes that Hicks anticipates the returning players having to make some adjustments.

"It will be a little different. There are going to be guys who are asked to do things that are different than what they've done in the past," Hicks said. "It'll be an open competition to find the best 11 guys that we can put out there."

Hicks' multiple formation playbook draws some inspiration from the likes of Ohio State, Clemson and Auburn, but it has less to do with what Hicks calls "window dressing" and more to do with execution.

"The formations and the motions and the tempo and the different things you might do, all adds into that," Hicks said. "If you're on the inside of this thing, you'd say this is a really simple thing. If you're defending us or watching us, you'd say, 'Man, that's a really complex system."

On the inside, Hicks' goal is to reduce the level of thinking necessary to execute each play successfully. For the former offensive lineman, it all begins up front.

"Everything has to be very simple for the offensive line," Hicks said. "I like to say that we don't want to count steps, we want to dance. We want to make it simple for them."

By making it look complex but simple to learn, Hicks is hopeful that the up-tempo attack allows his quarterbacks to be efficient game-managers while still flourishing.

"The system is flexible enough for us to be able to use the talents of our quarterback and what best suits him," Hicks said. "He has to be able to manage the system in that way. We don't ask him to be superhuman."

Hicks will work closely with his quarterbacks on a daily basis, but he'll also move around to the other positions, constantly tweaking to make the offense it's most effective. Ultimately, that could be the hallmark of Hicks' offense at Robert Morris.

"We want to be the No. 1 scoring offense in the country. We want to put up as many points as we possibly can. The direction of how we do that is going to change week to week," Hicks said. "If we need to throw the ball every down this week to score the most points, that's what we'll do. If we need to run it the next week, that's what we'll do. We're not going to push something that's not working for us. We're going to adapt and improvise and improve."

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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