03/08/2013 06:05 EST | Updated 05/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Former Ram says mental focus biggest lesson he learned during NFL rookie season

Athleticism and ability got Akiem Hicks to the NFL but he's using his head to stay there.

The former Regina Rams star admits his rookie season with the New Orleans Saints was a whirlwind of constant adjustments to the nuances of pro football. But the biggest lesson the six-foot-five, 325-pound defensive tackle learned was the importance of mental preparation and focus.

"Everyone there is my size and my strength," Hicks said via telephone from Sacramento, Calif. "Although you're going 100 per cent each day in practice, you always must be mentally focused and prepared for anything so when it happens in a game, you know how to immediately react.

"It's amazing just how much more mental practices are.''

Hicks was the first player New Orleans selected in the 2012 draft, going in the third round (89th overall) before signing a four-year contract. But the 23-year-old certainly took the path less travelled to the NFL.

Hicks transferred to LSU in 2009 after two seasons at Sacramento City College but never played for the Tigers. The NCAA ruled him ineligible after receiving improper transportation and housing from an assistant coach.

After working at a DirectTV call centre in Colorado Springs, Colo., and wondering if he'd ever play football again, Hicks made the 22-hour drive to Regina in 2010. He had 42 tackles and 6 1/2 sacks in 2011 and was named Canada West's top lineman.

After playing in the East-West Shrine game, he was invited to the NFL combine before being taken by the Saints.

Despite suffering a broken hand during organized team activities, the native of Elk Grove, Calif., had 20 tackles and a forced fumble in 14 games last season with New Orleans.

But the 2012 campaign was one to forget for the Saints.

Prior to the season, the NFL rocked the pro football world by revealing New Orleans operated a bounty system that paid its players bonuses for hard hits and deliberately injuring opponents from 2009 — when it won the Super Bowl —to 2011.

Former defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely by the league. He was reinstated last month and hired by Tennessee as a senior assistant defensive coach.

Also banned were head coach Sean Payton (entire 2012 campaign), GM Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant coach Joe Vitt (six games) while the Saints were fined US$500,000 and stripped of 2012 and 2013 second-round draft picks.

Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive linemen Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith and former linebacker Scott Fujita were also suspended and fined but their penalties were vacated upon appeal.

However, the Saints never recovered. After posting a 13-3 record in 2011, the host squad for last year's Super Bowl finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs. Defensively, New Orleans struggled mightily, allowing a league-record 7,042 yards.

Fortunately for the Saints, Payton is back, having signed a five-year extension with the NFL club. That gives New Orleans a brilliant offensive tactician who's also regarded as one of the league's sharpest coaching minds.

"From what I'm told (Payton's return) is going to be an awakening for many guys, especially ones like me who've come in under his tutelage," Hicks said. "I'm excited and can't wait to be coached and in his system.''

After enduring a losing rookie campaign, Hicks has big expectations for 2013.

"Winning," he said emphatically. "A lot of winning.

"That's why you play this game.''

As a rookie, Hicks wasn't directly involved in the bounty scandal but still felt the heavy weight many of his teammates shouldered last season.

"As a rookie you're just in there trying to find your way," he said. "My way of getting through that was concentrating on what I had to do day to day to show I could bring something to the team.

"But you feel it when your teammates are having a tough time. You're with these guys 10 hours a day and can sense when their moods change and you want to be there for them because they're your teammates.''

As Hicks adjusted to his new life, he did have a sounding board to rely on — Rams head coach Frank McCrystal.

"Oh man, that man has been such a blessing in my life," Hicks said. "I speak with him every chance I get.

"It's not as often as when I was at Regina and in his office every day ... but I can't express how often I've thought about what he's done for me in my life.''

Typically during the season, Hicks was at the Saints' complex by 8 a.m., attending meetings, working out and practising roughly until about 5 p.m. But before leaving, he'd have game film of an upcoming opponent downloaded into his iPod for study later that evening.

"You gain a whole new perspective for the game at this level," Hicks said. "In college, I'd go to class until about 2 p.m., then have a complete change where I'd be able to go out, have fun, be violent and play the game.

"I don't have that transition now. Some people think it's a recreational job but it's serious business. You've got to put the hours in with your teammates, then by yourself to stay ahead.''

Then again, there are definite fringe benefits like terrific pay and the notoriety that comes with being a professional athlete. There's also living in a city like New Orleans with its top-flight nightlife scene.

"I've never been a part of that," Hicks said. "I grew up in Sacramento, which is in a more modest part of California, and went to school in Regina.

"I've never needed that and don't need it now. You have to stick to the person you are and I've never been that.''

And that approach makes it easier for Hicks, a business major at Regina, to manage his finances.

"I don't have anything I need to spend money on besides my own living expenses and I've lived with a lot less so budgeting isn't a problem," he said. "(After football) I'll look to do something with my business degree.

"I don't mind working in an office looking out of my corner window. I don't know what city I want to be in, although I might go back to Regina. I loved it there, it's my second home.''

But a return to Saskatchewan will have to wait. Hicks still has much to learn about how to consistently escape the grasp of cagey NFL offensive linemen.

"I can't say I've arrived because I have so much more to give and so much more to learn," he said. "Two things I have to work on are my flexibility and pad level, which go hand in hand.

"My biggest thing is being able to maintain that low centre of gravity, which will increase my power. The game is power and efficient movement. Power comes from the ground, from either a push or a pull and when you can generate power from either a push or a pull you're unstoppable.''