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Akiem Hicks prepares to burn bright in second Saints season

It could be an ideal fit for a big man on a mission whether Akiem Hicks acts as a battering ram collapsing the pocket or gobbling up runners like a spider pounces on victims caught in the web.

Hicks (6'5-323), a second year defensive lineman, is anxiously anticipating where he'll play in the new 3-4 alignment that New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will implement for the 2013 season.

"I'm preparing to play everything, nose tackle, 3-tech or defensive end," Hicks explained. "When you're inside, you've got to take on the double team. Playing defensive end is the most fun. It allows you to make plays. It's been an accumulation of everything I've learned. There are so many possibilities."

Hicks was the third round selection for the Saints in the 2012 draft as the 89th player taken overall. Last fall was a learning experience, seemingly, a surprise around every corner. "It was amazing. You love the fact that you're doing what you always aspired to don't take anything for granted. There is so much that you need to prove to those hat got you where you are."

The sixth game last season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road was a coming out party for the native of Fair Oaks, California. The Black and Gold came away with a 35-28 win. Hicks' teammates served up a huge dose of motivation during the week of practice as he prepared to face a former Saints standout.

"Everyone was razing me all week," he responded with a laugh. "Playing against Carl Nicks. By the time that I got to the game, my cup had runneth over."

Jonathan Vilma's return gave the Saints defense an emotional lift. Malcolm Jenkins tackled Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson at the end of a 95-yard catch, setting up a goal line challenge to the Saints defense. Running back LeGarrette Blount was stopped on three tries before Cam Jordan threw quarterback Josh Freeman for a four-yard loss on fourth down.

Hicks had a good game, grading out very high. Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson displayed his confidence in the rookie as he stood beside him on the sideline. "Bill told me 'Get your butt in there, you're hot!' We had a great goal line stand."

Young Akiem played football, wrestled and ran track during his formative years. It helped build a rock solid foundation. "Wrestling is man-on-man. It teaches you to beat (your opponents) on a one on one block."

Although already powerfully built upon his arrival to the Saints practice facility, Hicks benefited greatly from how the program enhanced his skills.

"The strength program has been revamped, really improved," said Hicks. "Last year was maintenance. Now it's getting much stronger, faster and powerful. We are doing more Olympic lifts and squats."

Prior to landing at Regina University in Saskatchewan, Canada, he began his collegiate journey at Sacramento Community College. His original plan after leaving Sacramento was to play in the nation's premier conference. "There have been so many defensive linemen come from the SEC. My dad was from the south (Carson, Miss.). My final two choices were Tennessee and LSU. When Phillip Fulmer was fired, it was LSU."

His days as a Tiger were short circuited before it even started. After signing with LSU in 2009, assistant wide receiver coach D.J. McCarthy reportedly committed a recruiting violation causing Hicks to have to find a new home in a hurry. "It all caught me off guard. I thought that (LSU) would be a great situation. I enjoyed everything there. I definitely had an attachment. I felt very comfortable there. It was tough."

After pulling up stakes in Baton Rouge, he headed north of the border to the University of Regina. The weather change was an attention grabber, with a negative 28-degree wind chill awaiting him in his final game. "I pulled my hip out in the first quarter. I couldn't get going. It was cold." He managed to have a solid performance with 10 tackles and a pair of sacks despite the conditions.

Canada proved a good short stop for Hicks, who recorded 13 tackles for loss, eight sacks and four forced fumbles during his two-year stint, earning All-Canada West All star recognition.

Hicks maintained his mind set entering the next phase of his football life, with no inclination where he would wind up. He reminded himself to just keep grinding and stay focused. Be the best that you can be. Stay on top mentally and physically.

Being under the tutelage of Johnson in New Orleans has been a blessing. "I've never been in a better room," he said. "Power has always been my game, but I can always improve on my pad level. Coach (Johnson) points that out. You always want to bring your game up to the level and meet expectations. He is always 'on fire'."

Joining the NFL can be humbling when competing with and against some of the best players that he followed growing up, including a current teammate. "I liked Warren Sapp and Jonathan Vilma when he played for the Jets. I always loved the game. Jerome Bettis was my guy. I met him during the Super Bowl week. I was star-struck. I could have told him his stats and how I remember him running over Brian Urlacher. He was THE guy."

Another memorable first for the 23-year old was recently meeting Saints head coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the entirety of Hicks' rookie campaign. "It was the best experience. The first day that I met him was a couple of weeks ago at our first team meeting. We've made some great off season defensive acquisitions. I'm excited."

Hicks has also been smitten by The City That Care Forgot. He is immersed in the New Orleans culture and cuisine, although admitting that the amount of food intake could hit him hard in the wallet in the form of fines if he isn't careful.

"I've had this weight for a long time. You have to be consistent, check your weight within three-to-five pounds of your assigned target."

The restaurants in the Crescent City are enchanting to Hicks who claims the menu is flavorful. You get to taste dishes that you wouldn't normally wouldn't try any place else.

The hospitable Saints fans are unlike any other, according to Hicks, who is grateful to have found what appears to be the perfect fit for his budding pro career. "The people are great. They always make you feel welcome. The food is awesome. I'm built for this place," he declared with a wide grin. "I'm ready for it."

The fire is burning bright for the big and young Saints talent.

 

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