Hicks trying to find his comfort zone with Saints
BY Sheldon mickles
July 05, 2012
METAIRIE — As an NFL rookie, and a third-round draft pick at that, Akiem Hicks has two things going against him as he tries to find his comfort zone in the New Orleans Saints’ locker room.
Hicks is not only the new kid on the block, he’s from north of the border.
No, not Arkansas. Try farther north, like Canada.
“I can’t get away from it, I’m the Canadian guy now,” a smiling Hicks said Thursday. “They call me the ‘Canadian Kid.’ But it’s all right, I can take it.”
At 6 feet, 5 inches and 324 pounds and possessing an impressive 84-inch wingspan, it’s unlikely that he’ll have to defend himself from any of his teammates — especially on the defensive side of the ball.
And after what he’s been through the past five years, a little name-calling isn’t going to get Nicks down, either.
Actually, the well-traveled defensive tackle isn’t originally from Canada. He comes to the Saints from Elk Grove, Calif., with stops in Sacramento, Baton Rouge, Denver, and finally, the University of Regina.
“He’s a new guy, so you always have to take your shots at them,” said Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, a five-year veteran. “That’s just part of being a young guy in this league. But it’s rare to see a guy get drafted from Canada, so we’re kind of poking fun at him a little bit.”
What many of his new teammates may not know is that Hicks, in addition to being an American citizen, was a highly-prized junior college standout who signed with LSU over Tennessee.
But his stay in Baton Rouge was brief as he was at the center of an NCAA probe in 2009. Hicks never played a down for LSU, which self-reported penalties involving former wide receivers coach D.J. McCarthy and his recruitment of the junior college star.
The violations involved improper housing, transportation and phone calls, which cost LSU two scholarships the next spring and a one-year probation.
Hicks worked for a while at a DirectTV call center in Denver before finding his way to the University of Regina.
After two solid years there, finishing his senior season with 42 tackles and 61/2 sacks, he turned heads at the East-West Shrine Game in January and at the NFL scouting combine in late February.
“It was frustrating and just something I had to deal with,” Hicks said of not being able to play for the Tigers. “I’m way past it. There was a time when I was really frustrated, but it’s all over now and I’m just happy to be back in Louisiana playing football.”
Hicks made it clear to Saints scouts and front-office executives he would be receptive to coming back if they drafted him, which they did with their top pick — the 89th overall selection.
While Hicks was projected to go later in the draft, the Saints took a chance the potential he showed that merited his recruitment by LSU and Tennessee will come through for a team that is in need of run-stoppers in the middle.
While he’s only been through a rookie minicamp and six organized team activities, the early reviews have been good.
“Very, very athletic for a big man,” Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt said. “He has (a) quick twitch. I am very happy with him so far.
“Now, we are running around out there in our underwear,” he said of having to wear short pants in offseason workouts. “We have to put the pads on (in training camp), and the pads are going to define him.”
“He’s a big, strong guy,” Ellis noted. “Obviously, because he played up in Canada, he has to work on some things technically. But that’s for any young player.
“I think if he can get those things down technically, he’ll be a great player because of his size and strength.”
While it had nothing to do with technique, one of the first things Hicks had to do was re-learn American football. In Canada, there are 12 players on the field and defensive linemen have to line up a yard off the line of scrimmage.
“It’s different, but it’s good to be back in it,” Hicks said. “It’s way easier to come back than to go up there. Here, you line up right in front of your guy and you have straight contact right away when the ball is snapped. That’s what I like about it.”
After the first six OTAs, Hicks is working with the third-team defense alongside former practice-squad player Swanson Miller. Ellis and Brodrick Bunkley, one of the team’s top acquisitions in free agency, are the starters, with Remi Ayodele and Tom Johnson backing them up.
But Hicks doesn’t care about where he’s lining up at this point.
He just wants to make sure that, with a three-day full-squad minicamp starting Tuesday, he knows what he’s doing.
“I just have to make sure I have all my plays down and that I’m picking up the defense as fast as everybody else,” Hicks said of the new scheme being installed by new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. “I’m just learning right now.
“But I have to learn as fast as anybody else and make sure I don’t fall behind. So when I go home, I do a little more studying so I can keep going. A lot of the guys are showing me the ropes.”
In other words, they’re taking care of the Canadian Kid.
Minicamp practices open
Each of the team’s five minicamp practices this week will be open to the public unless workouts have to be moved indoors because of inclement weather.
There is no admission charge to watch the workouts, which are scheduled for 10:15 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday and 10:15 a.m. Thursday. Gates will open 45 minutes before the start of each practice.