Jimmy Mickens hasn’t always carried the football, and for a long time he didn’t want to do it.
“I just started playing running back in high school,” the Mount Carmel senior said. “At first I was dreading it, but then I got used to it. … On offense, they were always the enemy.”
Now it’s opponents who don’t look forward to seeing Mickens with the football. He played a complementary role for the Caravan’s Class 8A champs as a junior last fall, gaining 243 yards on 47 carries and scoring four touchdowns.
This season, he’s the backfield mate of Illinois-bound Matt Domer and leads Mount Carmel (6-1) in attempts (80) and rushing yards (669) averaging 8.4 yards and scoring seven TDs.
Mickens’ prime attribute? “It’s consistency,” Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti said. “You can always count on him to get positive yards.”
It’s comforting for Lenti and the Caravan to know Mickens is around if anyone around him goes out with an injury.
“When Draco [Smith] was hurt [last year], you could put Jimmy in there and not miss a beat,” Lenti said.
The same dynamic is playing out now. Domer missed last week’s win over St. Laurence and though his injury isn’t believed to be serious, his return date is uncertain.
But with Mickens running the way he is, there’s no reason for Domer to rush back.
“He understands the blocking schemes,” Lenti said, and “we count on the fact that he’s such a great wrestler, he knows how to use his body for leverage.”
At 5-10 and 200 pounds, Mickens has the power to run between the tackles. But the product of the Homewood-Flossmoor Junior Vikings youth program also worked on his speed during the offseason.
And he has no trouble being a teammate of a high-profile recruit like Domer, who’s a three-star prospect according to Rivals.com.
“It opens up a lot,” Mickens said. “Nobody really thinks of Jimmy Mickens as a good back. [I] just do my thing.”
What Mickens will be doing after high school is up in the air right now. He finished fifth in the Class 3A state tournament at 182 pounds last season, and hasn’t decided which sport he’ll pursue at the next level.
Whichever way he goes, athletics won’t be the only factor in his college choice.
“My academics are definitely No. 1,” said Mickens, who has been getting Ivy League football interest and looks to major in mechanical engineering.
That squares with Lenti’s capsule description of Mickens: “Very quiet, very cerebral youngster. You can always tell the wheels are turning.”
And for Mickens, the top concern is that the Caravan keeps rolling in the right direction. He and his teammates have heard the cautionary tale of the last time Mount Carmel was coming off a state title, in 2003. That club wound up 6-6, the only non-winning record in Lenti’s 30 seasons as Caravan head coach.
“We’ve got to really focus on the details,” Mickens said. “That’s what we’re preaching.”
Not that Mickens is a big talker.
“Jimmy is a lot like [Minnesota-bound defensive lineman] Steve Richardson, he doesn’t have a lot to say,” Lenti said. “He does most of his speaking with his actions.”
But with the Caravan No. 2 in the Super 25 and in The Associated Press Class 7A state rankings, it looks like Mickens’ message is getting through.