By BRETT MARTEL / AP Sports Writer
METAIRIE, La. (AP) -- Akiem Hicks looks the part of an NFL defensive tackle, even if his resume does not stack up to those of most players selected in the first half of the NFL draft.
The closest the 6-foot-5, 324-pound Hicks ever came to playing major college football was the few months he spent at LSU as a junior college transfer before dropping out without ever playing a down.
"When that moment didn't go through, you had to find a plan B," said Hicks, who wound up finishing his college career on 110-yard fields in Canada. "It was a blessing that I was able to play at the University of Regina in Canada and I wouldn't change a thing.
"I'm here. I learned so much," Hicks added, reflecting on his circuitous and unconventional path to the NFL. "I'm a completely different person than I was when I came into LSU. ... I've grown up a lot. Traveling that road will grow you up real quick."
Since becoming New Orleans' top overall pick in the third round of last month's draft, Hicks has gone through rookie camp and his first three offseason practices with the full squad. While none of those practices have included any full-contact work, he's getting good early reviews from the coaches who took a calculated risk on him.
"Very, very athletic for a big man," said Saints acting coach Joe Vitt, who is replacing Sean Payton while he sits out his season-long suspension in the bounty probe. "I am very happy with him so far. Now, we are running around out there in our underwear. We have to put the pads on and the pads are going to define him."
Hicks joined LSU as a transfer from Sacramento (Calif.) City College, but left the Tigers amid allegations he was provided improper housing and transportation. Those benefits were provided by an assistant coach who also left LSU while being investigated for recruiting violations, including excessive phone calls.
LSU wound up on probation, lost two scholarships for the 2010-11 academic year and was also sanctioned with reductions in recruiting calls and visits during 2011-12. Hicks wound up briefly out of college and out of football, working nearly six months for DirecTV in Colorado Springs, Colo. He later mulled an offer to play in the Canadian Football League with the Toronto Argonauts, but decided the wiser choice was to continue his education in Western Canada.
"Colorado's beautiful and I'm glad I actually went there before I went to Canada because I got used to the snow," Hicks joked. "I was coming from California to Louisiana, and if I had gone straight to Canada, I don't know."
Hicks seemed to adjust to Canada well, at least on the field. He had 42 tackles and 6 1/2 sacks last season and was named Canada West's outstanding defensive lineman. That helped earn him an invitation to join American college standouts in the East-West Shrine game, after which he was invited to the NFL combine.
Hicks said he knows he has a lot to learn and still has to prove himself with pads on, but he has long been confident that he measures up to other top NFL prospects in terms of his natural talent and physical attributes.
After all, the Southeastern Conference is well known for placing successful pros on defensive lines throughout the NFL, and Hicks was recruited not only by LSU but also Tennessee.
"Being recruited to those two schools was a huge deal for me," Hicks said.
While at LSU, he became friends with Michael Brockers, who this spring left LSU to enter the NFL draft and was selected in the first round, 14th overall, by the St. Louis Rams.
Brockers' success at LSU and the much more lucrative rookie contract he'll receive than Hicks will get as a late third-round pick left Hicks to wonder what might have been if his stay with the Tigers had gone according to plan. Yet Hicks shows no sign of regret or resentment, or even envy when considering what Brockers has done.
"That's my guy, a lifetime friend and I'm proud of what he's done," Hicks said. "There's no hard feelings between me and LSU or anything. I'm happy where I'm at and I'm blessed to be back here in Louisiana playing for the New Orleans Saints."