Scary thought: Hicks still work in progress

Akiem Hicks has been called "good clay" and "baby monster" by members of the Saints. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Third-year defensive end Akiem Hicks has been widely touted as the New Orleans Saints' next breakout candidate on a young defense that was filled with breakout players last year.

But Hicks' position coach, Bill Johnson, made it clear that Hicks isn't getting that kind of rah-rah support every day on the practice field.

"I don't want to just say, ‘Hey man, this guy's gonna be the greatest.' That ain't my job," said Johnson, who recognizes that the ridiculously-strong, 6-foot-5, 324-pounder is "good clay" that still needs to be molded to realize his full potential.

"Here's what I would say," Johnson prefaced. "I think after last season people saw that there's a pretty good football player there. As his coach, we've still got a lot of work to do.

"I feel like I got a responsibility here to make this kid improve, keep learning football, get him better technique. He does a lot of stuff naturally. In other words, the technique might not look good, but the job's getting done. But I do know that over the course of his career, if he'll become a better fundamentalist, as he gets older he'll become more efficient. So my challenge with him is to keep the ball moving forward ... and make sure he can become what we all think he can become."

Hicks' natural strength and athleticism is one of the most obvious things that stands out to observers during Saints training camp practices.

If you watch him during one-on-one pass-rush drills, you instantly gain respect for any offensive lineman that can keep from getting bowled over (Jahri Evans -- an equally impressive force -- has mostly held his own, but Tim Lelito took a beating on one snap the other day).

And just in case you're not watching Hicks in those drills, you can be alerted that his turn is coming next by listening for the guttural roar that comes out of his mouth before the ball is snapped.

Defensive end Cameron Jordan talked about those grunts recently while explaining that Hicks is no longer dubbed a "baby monster" but a full-blown monster now -- in fact, a "monstrosity."

And outside linebacker Junior Galette said Hicks' legendary exploits in the weight room are "everything you've heard and more." Plus, Galette said Hicks has enough natural athleticism to "tomahawk dunk" on the basketball court.

But the challenge now is for the Saints to mold that clay into a player that produces even more than the 56 tackles and 4.5 sacks Hicks racked up last year while playing 66.3 percent of New Orleans' defensive snaps. Especially now that defenses are well aware of the former third-round pick out of the University of Regina in Canada.

"I'm sure he'll see a lot of different protections this year, and we've got to be ready for that," Johnson said. "I think when people game plan they'll say, ‘Look, we've gotta take care of this big 70-something (No. 76). I think people do watch tape and see that, you know.

"But he's an exciting guy to watch to see where it goes, see how it develops. … I'm very excited about working with him. And what I appreciate about him most is his passion to play."

Hicks' history proves that passion, since he had to take a long, hard road to the NFL after recruiting violations prevented him from playing up the road at LSU. And Hicks agreed that he is "nowhere near" where he wants to be as a football player while chatting with The Times-Picayune's Jeff Duncan about that uphill climb.