If you got connected to a DirecTV call center in Colorado Springs in the winter of 2010, it’s possible you were talking to a former LSU defensive lineman two years away from entering the NFL draft, without even knowing it.
Akiem Hicks went from California to LSU, and DirecTV to Saskatchewan, and is now in position to be selected in the 2012 NFL draft.
“I drove from Colorado Springs to Regina, Saskatchewan, for 22 hours straight. The routes I’ve had to take have been challenging. They’ve been hard,” Hicks, a defensive lineman, told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. “But to be here, in this place. I’m not on the stage, but I’m here. So, it means a lot to me.”
Hicks’ collegiate career began close to home at Sacramento City College. He was ranked fourth among defensive tackles in junior college by Rivals.com in 2009 and went to play with Les Miles and LSU, one of the top programs in the country. But Hicks never took a snap for the Tigers.
A recruiting violation deemed Hicks ineligible, and he left school.
The NCAA probe said that the LSU WR coach at the time, D.J. McCarthy, gave Hicks unauthorized transportation and free and discounted lodging. There were also violations regarding impermissible phone calls. The violations became public in July 2011, before Hicks was about to start his second season with the Regina Rams. Hicks had left LSU after the 2009 season, and McCarthy had left the school, too — he's now a director at WRA Receiver Academy.
“I had no idea that it was a violation and that it was illegal for me to be staying in a former player’s apartment because of the fact that I was paying rent,” Hicks told PFW in a phone interview. “If I were to not be paying rent, OK, there might be something fishy. But for a young man to come across the country, Sacramento to Baton Rouge, get an apartment, get a job — I was working as a janitor at the condominium and I was paying $500 in rent a month at that time. For that to be a violation, I thought it was unreal.
“I didn’t understand at the time, or to this day. All those things are in the past, and I’ve had to deal with them. It was a trying experience. It was something that I’ve matured and grown from.”
And that sent Hicks to Colorado Springs, where he lived with his older sister. He had to wait for the NCAA to make a decision, so he went and got a job.
“I walked in, put my charming face on, got the job (at DirecTV). It was something to have while I was waiting for a decision to be made,” Hicks said. “My dad always told me not to sit on my butt for too long. You always need to be productive and have a goal.”
In the span of a few months, Hicks went from potentially playing for a national title contender to working at a call center, an experience he said helped him mature and grow as a person. But it wasn't football, and that part of his life was in question.
“I’d sit in my room and think, ‘Wow, what’s going to be my next step? And how am I going to rise above the situation?’ ” Hicks said. “Without the melodramatics, I had to find something within myself to still strive for my dream and something I really wanted.”
What helped keep Hicks focused on a career in football was the fact that the Toronto Argonauts offered him a chance to play for them. He considered it but said he realized that he still “wanted my college experience. I didn’t want to be stripped of that,” which is where Frank McCrystal stepped in.
McCrystal has been the head coach of the University of Regina Rams since 1999, when it joined the CIS, Canadian Interuniversity Sport. He first heard about Hicks from McCarthy while at the 2010 East-West Shrine Game in Orlando, Fla. In February, McCrystal flew to Denver, drove to Colorado Springs and had lunch with Hicks and his mother.
“My first impression was his size. He looks like an athlete. When you talk to him, (you notice) his personality, his confidence, how straightforward he is. He looks you in the eye,” McCrystal recalled.
In some ways, Hicks was interviewing McCrystal, wanting to know more about playing in Canada, but he also wanted to gauge a trust level.
“After leaving LSU, I didn’t have a really good perception of what a coach was. Les Miles was great. He brought me in and allowed me to be there. He picked me up,” Hicks said. ”As far as knowing who you can trust and if I was willing to put my future back in the hands of another college coach — the college game was tainted to me. I felt like something had been taken away.
“I wanted to know what kind of man Frank was. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve had in my life. A great man, mentor, man to learn from. Not just as a coach, but as a man. He advises you in your life, your school, not just football.”
McCrystal said that the opportunity for Hicks to get a degree and be noticed by NFL scouts was a plus. Seahawks P Jon Ryan played at Regina, and the school has sent a number of players to the East-West Shrine Game.
Hicks was sold, and in August 2010, he set off on his 22-hour drive, through the Dakotas to Saskatchewan. McCrystal and members of the staff met Hicks at the border, and he prepared to resume his football career in the Great White North.
"The opportunity to transfer (to another NCAA school) never came because the investigation was still pending," he explained at the Combine. "So, my clock was eaten up; it was eaten alive. I ended up making the best decision for myself, and that was going to Canada.''
The transition to Canadian football, where the rules are different and the field is wider, wasn't an easy task for Hicks and the Regina staff, who wanted to get the most out of a player with upside.
“It was really challenging,” McCrystal said about getting Hicks started. “(Growing up), he was too big to play with kids his own age and too young to play with kids his own size. He played two years of high school and two years of juco football. … Here you have 12 men playing a yard off the ball with motion in the backfield. To compound that, no one was quite sure where to play him.”
Hicks said he feels that he is a three-technique, but added that there were a handful of games in which he played every position on the defensive line. “There were even some plays where I stood up, playing a blitzing 'Mike' linebacker,” he said. “The reason for that was because they felt I was athletic enough to maneuver my way into gaps and explode into gaps from different angles.”
In his first season at Regina, Hicks had 24 tackles and 1½ sacks. He was selected in the United Football League draft by the Omaha Nighthawks after his first year but said he still had a passion toward his college degree. Hicks is a business marketing major.
In 2011, he had 42 tackles, 6½ sacks and was named Canada West’s outstanding lineman. One knock against Hicks’ play in Canada, though, was that he did not dominate the inferior competition.
“He was certainly double-teamed. He would have the backs go outside the box and come back to block him and cut-block him,” McCrystal said. “That yard off makes a difference. (In the States), when you’re helmet-to-helmet with a guy, you can go, get off the ball and go hard. Here, he might get reached because he’s coming upfield and they’re stepping outside him.”
“I will tell you this: If you were to ask my opponent, they might have something different to tell you,” Hicks said about the criticism. “If you didn’t see me pick the guy up and slam the guy on his back, I was attempting to go around him.”
McCrystal explained that by the second half of 2011, Hicks became an “incredible player” and he was running guys down on the Canadian wide field. His superb play got him an invite to the East-West Shrine Game, where he made enough favorable impressions to earn what is thought to be the first Combine invitation ever for a player from the CIS.
With a couple of weeks to go until the draft, PFW draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki projects Hicks to be a fifth- to sixth-round pick. On the field, McCrystal believes Hicks has the tools to get on an NFL defensive line.
“He has incredible power in his legs and his hips and gets off on the ball very quickly,” he said. “(Hicks has) long arms, big hands — he is certainly someone that, when he gets up in your face, it’s very challenging to throw the ball over (him). NFL quarterbacks are big dudes these days; he’s a guy that, in the face of a quarterback, would be difficult throw over.”
Hicks, who came in at 6-4 5/8 and 318 pounds with an arm length over 35 inches at the Combine, referenced Dolphins OLB Cameron Wake and Bears DE Israel Idonije as two players who had experience in Canada and have found success in the NFL.
“I am not saying that I am anywhere near their caliber of player; all I’m saying is that the yard they’ve had to play with (the yard that separates offensive and defensive linemen at the snap, under Canadian rules) makes you use quite a few different moves in your pursuit of the quarterback,” he said.
Hicks was in Florida before the Combine to train with a pair of his former LSU teammates — Michael Brockers and Ryan Maker.
“That guy is the strongest guy I know,” Brockers said of Hicks from the Combine.
Hicks went from a reserve on one of the biggest football programs in the country to a desk job to the big fish in the small pond of Canadian football. There was plenty of buzz in Saskatchewan in 2010, and McCrystal said Hicks took it all in stride.
“He was incredibly patient with people that wanted to come up and talk to him. Some of the things he did off the field with the schools that we had here, the kids absolutely loved him,” he said. Hicks coached a flag football team while in Regina. “He was patient and spent a lot of time with (the kids), very much like he comes across in the interviews — personable, generous, determined, patient, very likable.”
Hicks’ football career came to a crossroads because of an NCAA violation that tested his determination. Now, as he waits to see which NFL team will draft him, he is excited to give back to the people who have supported him through his circuitous route to the NFL.
“There were people that missed out on my maturation. … It wasn’t fair for (my parents) to have to go through this, or for D.J. McCarthy,” said Hicks, who added that McCarthy has been a “constant motivator” for him and a “great man.”
“There have been a few people hurt on the way that the world, the NCAA forgets about,” he said. “It’s something we’ve all had to deal with, and now they’re all excited to see me take the next step in my life.”
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