ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- University of Regina defensive lineman Akiem Hicks has taken a long and winding road to the 87th annual East-West Shrine Game (Saturday on NFL Network, at 4 p.m. ET). Two or three Canadian players are invited to the storied contest every year, with Chicago Bears defensive end Israel Idonije one of the more successful stories from this relationship, but few prospects have a backstory like Hicks.
After starring at Del Campo High School, Hicks stayed in California to attend Sacramento City College. He was rated among the nation's top junior college prospects after the 2008 season, but his recruitment to LSU went horribly wrong; the NCAA investigation of impermissible benefits resulted in a self-imposed probation/loss of scholarships for the football team, the eventual departure of Tigers receivers coach D.J. McCarthy, and Hicks' retreating to Regina (located in Saskatchewan) to finish out his last two collegiate seasons.
When Hicks walks onto the Shrine Game practice field, his 6-foot-5, 324-pound frame (his arm, hand and wingspan length are all among the best at this game) makes it easy to see why major-college programs like LSU wanted him. His athleticism is excellent, so his Regina coaches lined him up as a stand-up defensive end, nose tackle, and everywhere in between.
Hicks felt his way through Monday's practice, getting used to the intensity and athleticism of players at this game, but Tuesday he showed very good strength at the point of attack lined up at defensive tackle. Though still learning to use his hands consistently to hold off and shed blocks inside, Hicks stood up double teams on multiple occasions and adroitly penetrated into the backfield to blow up run plays in seven-on-seven drills.
Talking to NFL and CFL scouts about Hicks, it's clear they have concerns about his past. But everyone I spoke with also believed the sky is the limit for the lineman if he's willing to put in the work. One NFL scout stated matter-of-factly, "there aren't many guys who look and run like him; someone's going to take a chance on him."
Now it's up to Hicks to prove he's ready to take the next step from formidable athlete to elite football talent.
» Another interior defensive lineman on the East team, Travian Robertson from South Carolina, also flashes great power off the snap. His average length did hurt him at times, especially when facing guards Jeremiah Warren (South Florida) and Rishaw Johnson (California, Pa.) in one-on-one pass-rush drills -- what scouts refer to as "the pit." Warren's thick lower half and overall strength allowed him to consistently anchor against bull rushers, and he also overwhelmed opponents coming off the ball during seven-on-seven run drills. Johnson's great length (his 34 1/2-inch arms are among the longest at the game) and natural athleticism allow him to control his man in one-on-one situations, though he relies on that length too much at times, stopping his feet and allowing the defender to get around his shoulder. His dismissal from Ole Miss after the first week of the 2010 season will be a factor in his final grade, but his play this week justifies his standing as a draftable interior lineman.
» Offensive tackle Joe Long from Wayne State has the size and length to play at the next level, and scouts like his genes: He's the younger brother of Jake Long, the Pro Bowl left tackle for the Miami Dolphins. There has been a learning curve this week for Long coming from a small school, even one that made the Division II Championship Game. The 6-foot-6 Long gives good effort on every play but tends to play tall, and is inconsistent moving his feet to sustain blocks after initial contact. Too often he allows physical, hard-working players like Julian Miller (West Virginia) to shed his blocks to run around him or make a play on the running back. Across the line from Long, first-team All-Conference USA lineman Lamar Holmes (Southern Miss), has all the physical characteristics to be a starting NFL right tackle. He's 6-foot-5, 320 pounds with long arms (35 1/4 inches, tops at the game) and natural bend, allowing him to take away the edge from defensive ends. The former junior college star only needs to ramp up his intensity a bit, attacking ends more regularly off the snap and using his strength to punch their numbers instead of catching them as they come upfield.
» New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham has exploded onto the NFL scene despite switching from basketball to football before his senior year at Miami. The Hurricanes had another interesting tight-end prospect this season in Chase Ford, who transferred from Kilgore Junior College two years ago. At 6-foot-6, 258 pounds, Ford cuts a good frame, but it is evident on the practice field he lacks the explosiveness and overall athleticism that made Graham a hot name at the Senior Bowl two years ago. He showed strong hands throughout the day, however, and very good concentration snagging a ball in stride after it was tipped by UCF linebacker Josh Linam. Ford's blocking is inconsistent (because of technique, not effort) and average speed and agility does not allow him to separate from linebackers and safeties, so most of his NFL catches will likely be contested. But he shows enough talent to be a late-round pick as a solid reserve.
» Teams looking for solid Saturday draft picks at tight end paid close attention to that position group during Tuesday's West team practice. Cory Harkey from UCLA is one of the most physical in-line blockers seen on the all-star game circuit the last couple of years. He attacks defensive ends and linebackers with equal strength, keeps his feet moving and extends his arms to push his man backward as the play continues. Two linebackers on the West team, Brandon Marshall (Nevada) and Josh Kaddu (Oregon), are known among scouts as solid cover 'backers who can handle tight ends at the line, but Harkey took them out of run plays with veracity. As was his tendency on film, Harkey did overextend at times, which better defenders can use to make him lose his balance. But his tenacity is impressive, and he did a good job getting his hands in front of his frame to catch throws Tuesday; his inconsistency as a receiver was a bugaboo for Harkey during his Bruins career (he had just one catch for 10 yards in 2011). Fellow West tight ends David Paulson (Oregon) and Kevin Koger (Michigan) are polar opposites in some ways, with Paulson looking like a large wide receiver and Koger an absolute physical specimen, but both have been used in an H-back/fullback role this week -- as I suspect they will be on Sundays. Both also grabbed passes down the seam, flashing the ability to eat up zones out of the backfield.
» Kicking specialists do not get a lot of notice at all-star game practices, but it's been difficult to ignore the thump of the ball coming off the foot of California punter Bryan Anger. The 6-foot-3 1/2, 203-pound Golden Bear gets excellent hang time and distance on nearly every kick and his punts inside the 10-yard line bounced to the side or backward with regularity. Because Cal used a lot of rugby kicks this year as a change-up and due to protection issues (Anger's delivery speed is not a problem), scouts wanted to see him boot the ball consistently this week. One reason scouts don't put a lot of weight on practices for specialists, however, is lack of rush coming their way. But in a specialist class that isn't, well, special, Anger's leg strength stands out.
» Former Arkansas wide receiver Greg Childs tore his right patella tendon last October and just started to look more like his old self at the end of this season. The Arkansas standout lacks explosion off the line because of his long and lean lower body, but his footwork is getting better and he flashed the ability to snatch passes out of the air during Tuesday's practice. One longtime NFL scout thought Childs could push his way back up in the top 100 picks if he continued to improve over the course of the week.