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The Daily Tar Heel

All eyes on Hakeem

Hakeem Nicks junior wideout will have to shoulder an even heavier offensive load this weekend against Virgina. ?He?s been the one really solid consistent week-in and week-out player? coach Butch Davis said. ?You can always count on Hakeem to deliver this kind of performance.?

Hakeem Nicks barely makes it out of the locker room Tuesday before a camera's in his face and he's being directed for a photo shoot.

Nicks takes it all in stride — the light the flashes from the camera; he even manages to ask when and where the shots are running without breaking the photographer's rhythm.

It's obvious the junior wideout welcomes the spotlight — which is good because it's going to be focused intensely on him for the rest of the season.

With Nicks' running mate wideout Brandon Tate out for the season defenses know exactly where the ball is going: the XXL hands of No. 88.

Nicks who wears the largest sized gloves offered (he says they still don't fit) has always welcomed that attention.

In the preseason" he casually dropped phrases such as ""national championship"" and ""Heisman.""

Those were bold statements when UNC had its full complement of players" and doubly so now" after injuries to starting quarterback T.J. Yates and to Tate. But Nicks doesn't back off his preseason claims.

""We're definitely looking at it the same way" Nicks said. (Injuries are) just a part of football. Guys go down guys gotta step up. A football team is not made up of one or two players on the team" it's 40 or more.""

In fact" while Tate has garnered the highlight reels Nicks has been racking up his own stats.

Nicks holds the UNC career record with eight games of more than 100 receiving yards. Statistically speaking he is the best wide receiver in the ACC with almost 200 more yards than his closest competition.

His quarterback certainly seems to know that. In the past three games Cameron Sexton has thrown to Nicks 23 times for 17 completions. With all his other receivers" Sexton is 21-45.

""Cam" he relies on me to make big plays on third down" Nicks said. So I just got to make plays.""

Sexton and injured starter Yates both speak about Nicks with the same borderline reverence.

""The only thing that's going to stop him is maybe quadruple coverage"" Sexton said Monday, after Nicks reeled in nine of his throws the prior weekend against Notre Dame. I mean"" I really feel like that he can find a way to get open.""

The reason? Nicks loves contact.

While not the biggest receiver" Nicks doesn't hesitate to get down and maybe a little dirty with defenders — when he put the Tar Heels on his back with three straight catches against Notre Dame" twice Nicks pushed off the cornerback to create some space.

""I just wanted to march us downfield. … I was just so antsy about it"" you know?"" Nicks said"" seeming to relish even the memory of competition. ""I just really wasn't thinking about it that much"" I just wanted to keep making plays.""

Once he gets the ball"" Nicks has another and more lethal weapon to keep defenders at bay: a nasty stiff-arm. His arms are so long that some smaller cornerbacks can't even reach his shoulder.

""The stiff-arm has always kind of stuck with me since high school"" Nicks said. It's just natural. It's like second nature to me.""

The result is that Nicks rarely hits the ground after first contact" if at all. Most cornerbacks — and plenty of safeties — just aren't big or strong enough to bring him down.

And don't think Nicks doesn't know it. On the field he doesn't shimmy or juke as Tate does. In fact Nicks doesn't change his route at all. If someone's in his way" Nicks goes over or through him.

""I can show you five catches in practice that he'll catch a 15-yard catch and he'll run 60" 70 yards to get to the end zone Davis said.

And there's no mystery to why he plays the way he does" he works hard.""

Case in point — against Connecticut" Sexton threw to Nicks despite a perfectly positioned cornerback ready to make a interception. Instead of the turnover Nicks reached over and snagged the ball out of the defender's grasp and then ran upfield — as if the cornerback wasn't even there.

While Nicks might be athletic enough to make defenders appear invisible he can rest assured that he'll be the biggest blip on their radars from now on.

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