METAIRIE, La. – Hardly two years removed from playing college football on a 12-man defense in western Canada, Akiem Hicks is primed to emerge as a full-time starter on an NFL defensive line.
Just don't tell him that, because he won't even admit to being encouraged by the fact that he played with the starting unit in the New Orleans Saints' preseason opener and is regularly practicing with the first team.
"Not yet, because there's so much more to go," said Hicks said, referencing a metaphor defensive line coach Bill Johnson uses about each day of good work amounting to nothing more than a bean in a jar, which has to be full to represent a good season.
"I don't have enough beans to be encouraged yet."
Maybe not, but his effort in practice on Tuesday certainly seemed worthy of another bean.
He was a force in 11-on-11 drills, registering what would have been a sack on Drew Brees if he were allowed to touch the quarterback. Later, during a 2-minute drill, he had two more standout moments. First he batted down one of Brees' passes, then he perfectly read a screen pass to Darren Sproles, who Hicks wrapped up for a 4-yard loss in a 2-minute drill.
The 6-foot-5 Hicks, who said he now weighs about 330 pounds, is currently playing the left defensive end in coordinator Rob Ryan's new 3-4 defense (three linemen, four linebackers). Last year as a rookie, drafted in the third round out of the University of Regina (Saskatchewan), Hicks played reserve defensive tackle in a 4-3, then made the transition this year to what Johnson calls "the most physical position on our defense."
It wasn't clear whether Hicks would emerge as a starter when 2013 training camp opened because the Saints had signed 11-year veteran defensive lineman Kenyon Coleman, who had played the past two seasons in Ryan's 3-4 defense in Dallas. Last week, however, Coleman tore a pectoral muscle, which has likely ended his season.
Third-year pro Tom Johnson also is in the mix to start at that spot, though he has missed more than a week of practice with a hip injury.
Johnson conceded that Hicks is in position to win the starting job, but stressed that three weeks of evaluation remained.
"Thing I've said all along about Hicks is that he's raw but he has a lot of versatility," Johnson said. "I thought our scouting people did a great job watching him in Canada to know."
Hicks, who grew up near Sacramento, was recruited by LSU out of the community college ranks, but an NCAA violation related to financial help provided by an assistant coach left him ineligible to play in the United States, hence his move to Canada, where he thrived as a stand-up defensive end.
"What was hard was to evaluate him versus the people he was against," Johnson said. "It wasn't like if he had went to LSU and stayed. You could evaluate him against guys who would potentially be in this league. It was like guys that were just little kids and he was obviously dominating up there."
Big NFL offensive tackles can find him tough to block as well.
"He's a good athlete that weighs (330 pounds) that moves like he's 300 or 290," said Saints right tackle Zach Strief, who has to block Hicks in practice. "That's something pretty God-given that's pretty hard to find."
NOTES: RB Pierre Thomas (left leg), OLB Martez Wilson (left elbow) and OLB Junior Galette (left leg) all returned to practice from injuries, participating to varying degrees. Thomas did the most, taking part in seven-on-seven drills. Wilson participated in a "walk-through" and Galette mostly watched. ... Courtney Roby, a veteran special teams leader and reserve receiver, needed help off the field after apparently hurting his left foot. Payton said Roby had a toe injury. He did not get more specific. ... Jerry Romig, who has been the public address announcer for Saints home games since 1969, and who also handled P.A. announcing for the first four Super Bowls in New Orleans, said his last game on the job will be this Friday's home preseason game against Oakland. Romig, 83, said his voice is fine but back problems have made it tough to get around. His 57-year-old son, Mark, who will take over, said his father wants him to show his own personality. But Mark Romig added, "My mother told me I have to do it just like my father."