Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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METAIRIE, La. When it was announced during April's draft that the Saints were taking defensive tackle Akiem Hicks with their third-round pick, there was some head-scratching taking place.

More than anything, there was a bit of wonder as to just where was the University of Regina.

Nearly eight months into his NFL career and 16 weeks into the season, no one cares about where Regina is (it's in Canada). Hicks' play has made that a moot point.

He belongs in the NFL.

'I think that people that looked funny at us when we drafted him aren't looking funny at us anymore,' Saints interim head coach Joe Vitt said. 'He has earned the right and respect of his peers.'

Hicks played well in preseason and raised eyebrows of those who follow the Saints.

But he was inactive in the season opener and after the Redskins ran for 153 yards and the Saints defensive line appeared overmatched and not athletic enough, there was question as to why.

A week later, he was active. He hasn't missed a game since.

Don't think for a minute, though, that the he feels like he's arrived.

'I can't say that I've proven anything to myself but I can definitely tell every game, every day I feel like I learn something new, especially watching guys like my veterans,' Hicks said. 'I definitely feel like I'm always maturing and learning a little bit more about football every day.'

In 13 games, Hicks has recorded 32 tackles, including 20 solo stops. In the Saints' lone bright spot in Denver, Hicks forced a fumble which New Orleans recovered and turned into its only meaningful points of the game before it got out of hand.

The 6-foot-5, 324-pound lineman has solidified the middle of the Saints' line and his teammates see the impact he is having and can have in the future.

'He has got all the physical gifts,' center Brian de la Puente said. 'He's strong. He's quick. I think he's began to understand the game more, used skills in certain situations that help him and I think he has done a good job figuring out what move to use in this situation.'

Added middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, 'He's not there yet but there has been improvement. I think he has a very high ceiling if he just keeps growing and maturing as a player. I think he'll be something special.'

Still, while the 23-year-old isn't caught up in the bright lights of the NFL, he's smart enough to know that he's somewhere special.

Before each game, he takes a moment to take in the atmosphere and look around at stadiums he never imagined he'd be playing in while at Regina.

'Going to every stadium, seeing on TV doesn't compare to actually seeing it in person,' Hicks said. 'Every time I walk in the stadium, I look around and hear the crowd.'

The key now for Hicks to become a true cornerstone of the Saints' defensive future is to take the next step. To do that, he'll have to improve on his technique, something he said he plans on doing during the offseason.

Meanwhile, he'll continue impressing those around him with his raw ability and his constant expectations to grow.

'A steal?' de la Puente said rhetorically about the third-round pick. 'He's a large individual and is exceptionally athletic. Sure, he's a steal.'

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