It's rare when a player from a Canadian university is drafted into the NFL. Most north-of-the-border natives will play at an American college if there's any chance they have a future in American football.
Take defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford of Boise State and center Philip Blake of Baylor for example. Those Canadian nationals came to play college football in the United States and both will very likely be mid-round selections in the upcoming late-April Draft.
Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, however, took the opposite route. Not unlike Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the California-born Hicks began his post-high school career by going the junior college route, attending Sacramento City College in 2007 and 2008.
Hicks was all set to transfer to LSU in 2009 before being declared ineligible by the NCAA for receiving impermissible benefits during the recruiting process.
With nowhere to go and no college to attend, Hicks temporarily moved to Colorado to live with his big sister where he worked for DirecTV for five months.
With his case under investigation by the NCAA, Hicks circumvented any continued ineligibility by transferring to the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.
"I drove from Colorado Springs to Regina, Saskatchewan for 22 hours straight," said Hicks back at the NFL Combine in February. "The routes I've had to take have been challenging. They've been hard. But to be here, in this place, I'm not on the stage, but I'm here."
Hicks played for Regina in 2010 and posted 24 tackles, five for a loss and 1.5 sacks in nine games. He followed that campaign up by making a team-leading 35.5 tackles in 2011, also in nine games, including eight for a loss and single-season school record with 6.5 sacks during conference play.
The East-West Shrine Game, a postseason college all-star game in St. Petersburg, Fla., traditionally invites a handful of the best players in Canada, and this year one of the honors went to Hicks.
In front of NFL scouts, general managers, media and even a national television audience on the NFL Network, Hicks' stock began to rise when he impressed during the week of practice.
"Coming in, I felt like it was going to be a huge challenge," said Hicks. "When I got on the field, and got around the guys, I clicked. I remembered, I am one of the guys. I felt good when I got in there. And everything worked out."
Hicks is definitely draftable material. Predicted by many to be a mid-round selection, the defensive lineman's raw size and potential can't be ignored. He measured in at 6-5, 318 at the Combine.
What NFL teams now have to find out is the character risk before deciding how high of a draft choice to invest into Hicks.
Under Ted Thompson, the Packers haven't hesitated to go to Canada in search of talent. In 2010 they signed wide receiver Shawn Gore out of Bishop's University in Quebec, although he was cut before he played in a regular season game.
Before that, the Packers signed another product from the University of Regina, punter Jon Ryan back in 2006.
"He comes back all the time," said Hicks of Ryan. "He hangs out. He's one of the guys. He's somebody, when I spoke to him, he didn't know me from anyone. He met me on the field, shook my hand, spoke to me. We talked about life. He's a pretty good guy."
Ryan played for the Packers for two seasons before being cut and playing for the Seahawks for the past four years.
One of Ryan's most important contributions, however, might be opening to door to the NFL for fellow Canadians.
"He's the guy around there," said Hicks. "One of the first guys to make it to the NFL. He's from that area, grew up in that area, went to a local high school, went to the U of R, and I think he went to the CFL for a few years first, and then made it over here in Green Bay before going to Seattle."
It's now up to Hicks to follow in Ryan's footsteps and become the next player from a Canadian university to make it in the NFL.
He thinks he has the ability to play the five-technique defensive end position (lined up over the offensive tackle) in a 3-4 defense, but thinks he's best suited as a three-technique (lined up over the guard).
Wherever he ends up playing, Hicks would classify himself as a "disruptor."
"Even though I played end," said Hicks, "when I played inside, that's when I got a lot of my numbers. With a push up the
field, disrupt the pass, get sacks.'
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