Cincinnati’s defense was dealt a significant setback on the eve of its season opener last week.

Safety James Wiggins suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice. The injury thrust sophomore Ja'von Hicks into the starting lineup for the first time. In a 24-14 win over UCLA, Hicks intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble to lead the defense.

“You just see the maturity,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said.

 

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Before Wiggins was hurt, the plan was for Hicks to see more playing time as a backup this season.

After a strong showing in preseason camp, Fickell estimated that Hicks was likely to see about 20 snaps per game. It would have allowed them to decrease Wiggins’ workload from about 75 snaps to 60.

It would be an expanded role after Hicks largely played on special teams as a freshman.

“We got guys on the team that are backups, what we call second-teamers,” Fickell said. “We challenged those guys through camp to not be second-teamers. What that means is you’ve earned your opportunities to play, that everybody trusts and believes in you. Not that you’ll make every play, but you know what you’re doing, you’ll give incredible effort.

“I think that’s what you saw from Ja’von throughout the entire camp when James was still there, step up and, all of a sudden, ‘Whoa, we got another guy back here that we can count on and put in the game.’”

Like many players on the Bearcats’ roster, Hicks is an Ohio native, from Cincinnati, who never received a scholarship offer from Ohio State. He was rated as a three-star recruit. Saturday marks the chance to play at Ohio Stadium as Hicks fills in for Wiggins, who was a ball-hawking safety last season, finishing with four interceptions.

Fickell applauded the rest of the team, including Hicks, for being opportunistic against UCLA as they forced four turnovers.

“To me, the most exciting thing was we overcame a lot of mistakes with great effort,” Fickell said.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman