NFL: Former Tar Heel Nicks emerging as a top receiver

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Associated Press
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — While fans in San Francisco have been celebrating “The Grab” that thrust Alex Smith and Vernon Davis to the national scene, there’s a pair of hands on the New York Giants making just as much news.
No! Not Victor Cruz.
Try Hakeem Nicks.
The former North Carolina star came into the season as the Giants’ No. 1 receiver and nothing really has changed despite Cruz’s record-setting season. Nicks is still Eli Manning’s go-to guy, and it has never been more obvious than in the playoffs. His 13 catches for 280 yards and four touchdowns rank in the top three in postseason statistics, with the four touchdowns being No. 1.
And while 49ers fans have marveled at Davis’ game-winning catch against the Saints, Nicks was the difference against the Packers. The 24-year-old scored on a 66-yard catch and run and made a remarkable catch on a 37-yard jump ball in the end zone on the final play of the first half to give the Giants a 10-point halftime lead.
“Honestly, I don’t think you’ve seen nothing yet,” Nicks said. “I think I’m just now peaking.”
Nicks made his “Hail Mary” catch look easy.
Being the target on the Giants’ flood play, Nicks ran to the left side of the end zone and waited for Manning’s rainbow toss to come down. As he did, he elevated and clutched the ball against the front of his helmet with his giant hands.
“These are special hands,” Giants coach Tom Couglin said. “I can give you a couple guys that I personally coached that were great players. This guy gets his hands on the ball and like I said last night, when I saw those red gloves go up, he is going to be up above everybody else and we would have a good chance of catching that one. I could appreciate it even if I was an offensive line coach. That is pretty special.”
And remember, he was the fifth receiver drafted in 2009, behind Darrius Heyward-Bey Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin.
“I think he is a lot faster than people give him credit for, especially when he is being chased,” Coughlin said. “He came out of the other end when he got hit. He got tagged pretty good by (Green Bay’s Charlie) Peprah and it kind of knocked him around and turned him around and he remembered which way was north and away he went.”
Ironically, Nicks was somewhat of a forgotten man on the Giants in the final weeks of the season when Cruz ignited the late-year run to the playoffs with a 99-yard catch and run against the Jets and a 74-yard yard scoring play in the win over Dallas on the final weekend that gave New York the NFC East title.
Coming off a record-setting season in which he caught 82 passes for 1,536 yards, Cruz became a celebrity in the New York metropolitan area. The Paterson, N.J., native was surrounded at his locker on a daily basis, while Nicks received the media leftovers.
Nicks never complained, and let his play do his talking.
“It’s just a matter of our offense, the way our receiving corps plays,” Nicks said. “Whether it’s me, Cruz or Manningham or the tight end or running backs making plays. We have playmakers all over our offense, that at any given time we can make plays.”
Cruz knows exactly where he stands on the pecking order.
“Hakeem is our No. 1 guy,” Cruz said. “He is the guy we look to, to make big plays whenever he gets the ball in his hands. He is a big-play machine. When he gets the ball in his hands, it’s a positive thing. When I get the ball or Mario, we are able to do big things. It’s kind of pick you poison.”
The 49ers gave up 311 yards in their 27-20 win over the Giants in early November, but they didn’t allow many big plays. Nicks had the biggest, snaring a 32-yard touchdown pass. But he had only one other catch.
Cruz and Manningham each had six catches in the game for 84 and 77 yards, respectively. Cruz had the team’s longest grab at 36 yards while Manningham had a 13-yard scoring catch. However, there was no home-run play, which has become the staple of the Giants’ offense this season.
Will the second time be a charm? Well, for now, Manning is just excited to have a second shot at the 49ers.
“We know what to expect with them,” Manning said. “They’re very a sound team. They’re very good. They have good players. They play with great energy. Their secondary has good players in it. They play smart football. Their offense doesn’t turn the ball over. They run the ball.
“Alex Smith is playing well. We know we’re going to have to play that same way. We’re going to have to play smart. Offensively, we’re going to have to be very consistent. Everybody is going to know their assignments. It’s just about execution.”
And that’s where Nicks will come into play. He needs to lead … again.
“I know what I’m capable of doing,” he said. “Making big plays in big games.”
That’s what the Giants will need to get back to the Super Bowl.
The Associated Press
01/17/12 17:55