Hicks carves his path in Canada

Akiem Hicks has traveled a long way for a backup plan.

While his peers from top-ranked LSU’s 2009 recruiting class play in front of 90,000 fans and a national TV audience against No. 2 Alabama on Saturday, Hicks and the University of Regina take on the University of Calgary in the first round of the Canada West playoffs in front of a couple thousand fans — if they’re lucky.

The distance between the two games is 2,200 miles. You will excuse Hicks if it seems farther.

"From when I was a young man, my pops always told me to have a plan B," Hicks said. "Plan A didn’t work and I had to make a plan B on the fly. It’s working out."

Hicks, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive end from Elk Grove, Calif., was the 20th-ranked junior college prospect coming out of Sacramento City (Calif.) Community College when he signed a letter of intent with LSU. Hicks enrolled in the fall of 2009, meaning he would have been a fifth-year senior for the Tigers this season.

But as an NCAA report released in July detailed (though the report does not identify parties by name), Hicks received impermissible transportation and lodging during an unofficial visit and then during the summer spent in Baton Rouge prior to enrollment, as well as a number of impermissible phone calls from then-LSU receivers coach D.J. McCarthy. While the violations would eventually cost McCarthy his job and Hicks his eligibility, the reality of Hicks’ involvement was far less salacious.

The transportation included an airport pickup from an LSU student who worked in the athletic department during his visit, along with local rides from that same student and fellow athletes from an off-campus apartment to athletic facilities, a summer class at a nearby community college and in one instance, church. Since he was still technically a prospect, the rides violated NCAA bylaws.

McCarthy also set Hicks up at the apartment of a former football player that summer, another NCAA no-no. The pair would later mislead compliance officers when asked where he’d been staying.

"As Canadians, we don’t have compliance offices like each of those big universities do," said Regina head coach Frank McCrystal, who found out about Hicks after meeting McCarthy at the East-West Shrine Game in January 2010. “As soon as you hear violations, you think someone bought him a car or gave him cash. I think there’s some personalities involved somewhere, and he got caught in the middle of them."

LSU, which self-reported the violations to the NCAA in March 2010 and self-imposed the loss of two scholarships in 2011, was placed on a year of NCAA probation and a reduction in official visits for two school years. While head coach Les Miles didn’t publicly discuss Hicks’ departure when he left the program, LSU associate athletic director Herb Vincent called the ruling "a good outcome for us" in July. McCarthy, who is now the offensive coordinator at a Florida high school, did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.

"I can’t say much about that," said Hicks, after taking 20 seconds to craft a diplomatic response when asked if he got a raw deal at LSU. "I couldn’t even put in words what to say about that. It’s in the past. It’s over now. I’m really enjoying where I’m at."

A candidate for the J.P. Metras Trophy, which is awarded to the outstanding down lineman in Canadian Interuniversity Sport (equivalent of NCAA Division I), the 21-year-old Hicks has become a dominant force for the Rams (3-5), recording 6 1/2 sacks in his second season with the team.

The only American on the Rams roster, Hicks has become a hit among teammates with his infectious, friendly personality and rabid play. In a late September game against the University of Manitoba, he accidentally clotheslined fellow defensive lineman Stefan Charles with a celebratory post-sack fist bump, causing laughter along the sidelines.

A business marketing major, Hicks turned down an opportunity to play for the UFL’s Omaha Nighthawks to return to Regina for the 2011 season and get his degree. He has one more year of CIS eligibility left, but may opt to sign with a CFL team in hopes of one day getting an NFL shot.

"He’s found the positives and is thankful for this opportunity," McCrystal said. "But he got hurt [by the LSU experience]. There might be 1,500 people at our games and then LSU is playing in front of 100,000. We talk a little about it, but he has let it go."

If the Rams can upset top-seed Calgary, which beat them 51-1 in September (there are 1-point plays in Canadian football), they’ll advance to the conference championships against the winner of the Saskatchewan-University of British Columbia matchup. The winner of that game would then be one of the final four teams in competition for the Vanier Cup, Canada’s national championship game.

"My goal back home was to become an All-American," Hicks said. "Coming up here, they have All-Canadian. So that became my biggest goal. I’ve taken hits in my short amount of time playing this game. Bouncing back from that and making my own reality, you have to take what comes. If I can’t have that, I have to pursue something just as meaningful."