It has been a long, sometimes bizarre road to the 2012 NFL draft for Akiem Hicks.
It began five years ago at a junior college in California, then took an encouraging turn to Baton Rouge, La., and the campus Louisiana State University. But that promise ended bitterly with a recruiting violation that resulted in Hicks leaving school before another odd twist landed Hicks at the University of Regina to continue playing football and pursuing an education.
Taking the path less travelled could pay off handsomely for the six-foot-five, 318-pound defensive lineman from Elk Grove, Calif. He's projected to go anywhere between the third and seventh rounds of this week's draft, which begins Thursday night and runs through Saturday.
"It has been a wild journey but a great journey," Hicks said via telephone from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he was finishing his pre-draft workouts before returning to California for the draft. "My dad always told me to have a plan B.
"Well, Plan A didn't work and I had to make a plan B on the run but it has worked out."
The NFL draft will cover three days. The first round will go Thursday night, with the second and third rounds being held Friday night. The final four rounds will be completed Saturday.
"I've been barraged the last few days by family and friends and old coaches asking me if I'm nervous or anxious yet," Hicks said. "To tell you the truth, I've been in and out so much that it's saved me from watching all the news.
"I know I won't be a first-day guy. I'm just hoping to be taken somewhere in the middle . . . but all I'm looking for is an opportunity. There is another step after that, which is actually being prepared to be on the field. That's what I find to be the most exciting part of it, to be able to play at that level."
Hicks is among three Canadian prospects expected to be drafted. The others include Baylor centre Philip Blake, a six-foot-three, 320-pound Toronto native, and Boise State defensive end Tyrone Crawford, a six-foot-four, 275-pound native of Windsor, Ont., both slated to go in the middle rounds.
And while Hicks is an American, he very much considers himself a Canadian.
"I might as well be half Canadian now," he said with a chuckle. "Recently I walked into Baltimore and the first thing (head) coach (John) Harbaugh said to me was, 'Hey, there's the Canadian kid.'
"I think if you guys will accept me, I'd be more than happy to have dual citizenship."
Also expected to garner interest either as a late selection or free agent are Georgia State defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi of Ottawa and Virginia guard Austin Pasztor, a six-foot-seven, 305-pound native of Langton, Ont. Wilfrid Laurier receiver Shamawd Chambers, a native of Markham, Ont., and Saskatchewan Huskies offensive Ben Heenan of Grand Coulee, Sask. — both highly rated prospects for next month's CFL draft — could also secure NFL free-agent deals.
Had Hicks remained at LSU, agent Frank Murtha believes his client would've been a bona fide first-round prospect much like Michael Brockers, the highly regarded Tigers defensive tackle.
"If Akiem had stayed at LSU, we'd be talking more about him more than Brockers," Frank Murtha said. "Don't get me wrong, he (Brockers) is a tremendous player but I don't think he's the athlete Akiem is.
"The team that drafts Akiem, from a scouting standpoint, the first thing they'll get is what we call a high-ceiling guy. He's someone who projects to have tremendous potential and is enormously capable and talented. They'll get someone who isn't a completely unmoulded piece of clay."
Murtha knows something about football talent. He represents 13 current NFL players, including former CFL kicker Justin Medlock (Carolina Panthers), Jacksonville Jaguars centre Brad Meester and Chicago Bears receiver Johnny Knox. He also served as former major-league pitcher Randy Johnson's agent.
Hicks began his NFL odyssey in 2007 by enrolling at Sacramento City College. Following the 2008 season he was considered a top junior college recruit and chose to enrol at LSU over Oregon, Arizona and Tennessee. But Hicks never played for the Tigers, sitting out the 2009 season after getting caught up in a recruiting scandal involving a former assistant coach providing Hicks unauthorized transportation and free and discounted lodging. There were also violations regarding impermissible phone calls.
Hicks left school after the 2009 season and moved to Colorado Springs to live with his sister, taking a job with DirecTV's call centre. During the NCAA investigation Hicks couldn't transfer to another American school so he opted for the University of Regina in the winter of 2010, driving 22 straight hours at one point to reach the Saskatchewan school.
In June 2011 the NCAA ruled LSU's football program had committed major violations and placed the school on probation for a year. It accepted the university's self-imposed reduction of two scholarships during the 2010-11 academic year as well as a 10 per cent cut in official visits and reductions in recruiting calls.
Hicks maintains he never knew he was doing anything wrong because he was working and paying rent while at LSU. During the NCAA probe, Canada became an option for Hicks when the CFL's Toronto Argonauts offered him a chance to play.
However, Hicks wasn't ready to give up on his education so decided to head to Regina instead.
"At that time it was either the CFL, supplemental draft for the NFL or play for Regina with the hope of finishing my degree," Hicks said. "School, I feel, was No. 1 so I decided to go to the University of Regina.
"I believe intelligence is what makes me a good football player, I'm athletically gifted but I also believe if I didn't know where I was going I wouldn't be able to get there."
However, Hicks had much more to adjust to than simply a new school in a new country. There was becoming familiar with the nuances of three-down football on a longer, wider field with unlimited motion and lining up a yard off the ball.
"I would say the Canadian game is different with how offensively geared it is and being a yard off the ball and the receiver motion," Hicks said. "But when you come back to football, it's still tackling, it's still running, it's still hitting. All the basics of the game are still the same, Canadian football is just somewhat different.
"If anything it has been a help because what (NFL scouts) have seen from my Canadian tape is I can run, I can go from sideline to sideline in a hurry. That has only helped my draft stock in the eyes of coaches and scouts."
Hicks had 24 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks in his first season at Regina but was taken in the United Football League draft by the Omaha Nighthawks. However, Hicks said because the Saskatchewan university had gone out on a limb for him, he felt it was only right he make a commitment to the school and opted to remain and continue working towards his business marketing degree.
"The first thing that impressed me when he was drafted by the UFL, Akiem's first priority was getting his degree," said Murtha. "He said (Rams head coach Frank McCrystal) and Regina had put their faith in him and he really wanted to do right by them and finish what he started there."
Hicks enjoyed a banner 2011 season, registering 42 tackles and 6 1/2 sacks to be named Canada West's outstanding lineman. And after a solid showing in the East-West Shrine game, Hicks was invited to the NFL combine to compete with top draft-eligible college football prospects.
Hicks posted a 40-yard dash time of 5.23 seconds at the combine, 26 reps in the 225-pound bench press and a 31-inch vertical leap. And since then, he's met with 11 NFL teams and is versatile enough to play tackle in a 4-3 alignment but also has the athletic ability to be a defensive end in a three-man front.
NFL scouts like Hicks's size, long arms (35 inches), wingspan (84 inches), speed and overall potential. However, he's also deemed somewhat raw and there are questions about the level of competition he faced in Canada.
"I think my biggest hurdles will be my technique and the game itself, learning even more than I know now," Hicks said. "But I'm ready to tackle those full steam ahead."