WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Akiem Hicks isn’t the type to make excuses.
The big defensive end played through an ankle injury last year, a problem that nagged and lingered and eventually landed him on injured reserve for the season finale. An ankle injury like that can be the difference between the star-making season everybody expected Hicks to have and the slight dip in production that followed his breakout 2013 campaign.
Except that Hicks would never admit it.
“You can’t lean on that as a reason to why you didn’t meet your goals,” Hicks said. “It’s a contact sport. You’re going to get physical when you have to deal with those things.”
Hicks is much more likely to turn his focus inward. His father, Frank, served in the Army for 22 years. Growing up in the Hicks house taught Akiem to take a hard look at every part of his day-to-day routine when adversity hit.
“The biggest thing with my dad being in the military was discipline,” Hicks said. “So when I look back at situations where I wasn’t successful, I tell myself that if I’d been a little bit more disciplined in certain areas.”
After playing last season at a mammoth 345 pounds — the kind of weight normally seen on nose tackles — Hicks spent the summer with Cam Jordan in Arizona, training at EXOS Athletes’ Performance Institute in Phoenix.
Hicks reported to training camp at a svelte 325 pounds, a number that would be big for most players but fits well on the defensive end’s 6-foot-5 frame.
“I’m trying to get in GQ magazine,” Hicks quipped. “But yeah, I definitely slimmed down a little bit, wanted to get prepared for this season, and I want to take advantage of every opportunity.”
Dropping a little weight also helps Hicks fit a slightly different role in the base defense this season.
Now that Jordan has moved to the Jack position formerly occupied by Junior Galette, Hicks is often lined up as a strong-side defensive end, playing to the outside shoulder of the tackle and inside the tight end, with an outside linebacker next to him to play the edge. In passing situations, Hicks will kick inside as an interior rusher.
Finally healthy and playing faster, Hicks turned in an impressive opening week of camp, recording at least two “sacks” in team settings and waging epic battles with Jahri Evans during one-on-one pass-rush drills. On his first one-on-one, Hicks got Evans off balance and threw him to the ground, no easy task against a player who’s been to six Pro Bowls.
“He’s lost some weight, he’s really committed to this team,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “Whatever Sean and I have asked of him, he’s given it to us. He’s in a better stance, he’s coming off the ball fast, and you’re right, he’s been disruptive for us.”
If Hicks can remain healthy, he can take aim at regaining that 2013 form.
Or surpassing it. From what Hicks has been doing on the practice field, his veteran Saints teammates think he could hit new heights.
“The sky’s the limit,” fellow defensive end Parys Haralson said. “He’s strong as an ox. Now that he’s putting his experience and learning with his natural ability, he’s a much more dominant player.”
Hicks needs a breakout season.
Entering the fourth and final year of his rookie deal, Hicks is in his contract year, a season that could make or break his next contract in the NFL.
“I’d lie if I said I never thought about it,” Hicks said. “But you’ve got to remember, this is a team sport, and that if we’re not all playing all together and we’re not clicking on all cylinders together, then we won’t be successful. You won’t be successful as much as you like to.”
Hicks isn’t simply reciting clichés.
His best year in the NFL also happened to be the season the Saints defense finished fourth in the league in total defense.
If Hicks can stay healthy and help the Saints turn things around after a disastrous follow-up season last year, he should have nothing to worry about.