METAIRIE, La. - The New Orleans Saints are bringing defensive tackle Akiem Hicks back to Louisiana, three years after his chance to play major college football for LSU fizzled before it had even begun.
The Saints took the 6-foot-5, 318-pound Hicks, in Friday night's third round of the NFL draft, adding depth to an interior line that needed it.
"Height, weight, speed — (Hicks is) the kind of guy that we're looking at in our defensive system," said Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who is handling head coaching duties during Sean Payton's season-long suspension in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation.
"We love his tenacity. We know he's raw. He's got to be coached, but that's the fun part," Vitt said. "He fits the character of our football team. He's got good work habits. We love his resiliency."
Taken 89th overall, Hicks was the first player chosen by New Orleans, which did not have a pick in the first two rounds.
The Saints had no first-round choice because it was traded to New England last year so New Orleans could draft Mark Ingram. Their second-round pick was eliminated as part of the club's bounty punishment.
Hicks was with LSU in 2009 as a transfer out Sacramento (Calif.) City College, but never played for the Tigers. He left LSU because he was ruled ineligible for being provided improper transportation and housing by former assistant coach D.J. McCarthy, who also left the program.
Hicks said his journey to the NFL "has been a long one and it has been a rough one at times."
"I've learned a lot the whole way," he added. "I just appreciate everything that has been given to me and taken from me because it has made me who I am today."
After five months working in a call centre for DirecTV, Hicks had a chance to play in the CFL with Toronto, but instead wound up playing college football in Canada at the University of Regina. Now he has become the first Canadian university player selected in the NFL draft since defensive lineman Vaughn Martin of the Western Mustangs went in the fourth round to the San Diego Chargers in 2009.
"When I got a chance to play for ... the Toronto Argonauts, that was a blessing in itself. And then when the University of Regina came along, it felt like the right decision," Hicks said. "It felt like something that I needed to do for myself to continue my education as well as continue playing football."
Hicks had 42 tackles and 6 1/2 sacks last season and was named Canada West's outstanding lineman. After returning to the United States and playing in the East-West Shrine game, he was invited to the NFL combine, where he was able to make an impression on Saints scouts in person.
Vitt said he was particularly impressed by Hicks' showing in the East-West Shrine game.
"He dominated, played really well, threw some bodies around," Vitt said. "That's where people really started to notice this guy, the raw pass-rushing ability, the feet, the hands. When you get ready in your third round, you love to get a guy that's got some redeeming qualities of greatness that you can work with. And you can't coach size and quickness."
Also pleased by the drafting of Hicks was new Saints defensive co-ordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
"When it was all said and done, Akiem stuck out. We're pretty glad we got him," Spagnuolo said. "All in all, when you watch him and see the things that he does, there's a great deal of potential there. He's a big physical football player."
The violations in which Hicks was entangled at LSU led the NCAA to place the Tigers on probation for a year.
LSU reported the violations and docked itself two scholarships in the 2010-11 academic year. The NCAA accepted that punishment as far as scholarship penalties and also imposed a 10 per cent reduction in official visits and reductions in recruiting calls during the 2011-12 academic year.
New Orleans could have traded future picks to get back into the first or second round, but chose not to.
Still looming as the draft began was the NFL's decision on punishment for the 22 to 27 current or former Saints defensive players that the league found to have participated in the bounty program.
General Manager Mickey Loomis said shortly before the draft began that impending player punishment would play no role in the Saints' decisions during the draft because it was not clear who would exactly would be punished and how harshly.
With all the uncertainty, Loomis said the Saints would be better off approaching the draft as they would any year.
New Orleans entered the draft needing depth on the interior defensive line and at cornerback.
"He was the top of the list on the board when it was our pick," Vitt said. "This was the player that we coveted, the one that we wanted ... It just so happens this was somewhat of a need."