Akiem Hicks is fired up for this season.
Hicks was limited in 2019, missing one game due to a knee injury before suffering an elbow injury in Week 5 that kept him out of all but one game for the rest of the season. Before that spell of bad luck, Hicks had started every game since arriving in Chicago in 2016.
Hicks' prolonged absence last season has built even more anticipation for the nine-year veteran. He looks forward to his first opportunity to hit someone other than his teammates.
"We've gotten after it a bit in training and have some live periods and some physical periods," said Hicks, "so my thirst has been quenched in some ways. But when we get to the regular season, and you get to unload on somebody that you don't have to see in the locker room, that's when the real pleasure comes."
Hicks has been held out of some training camp practices for what coach Matt Nagy has described as precautionary reasons. Hicks addressed the issue as to whether he will be prepared to play against Detroit Lions in the season opener.
"You never know if you're prepared until you step on the field," said Hicks. "In your mind, you're saying 'I'm doing all the things right that I can in order to go out here and put on my performance,' but you're never sure until you execute. You're never sure until you finish that game with a 'W.'"
After an offseason of uncertainty, the Bears are 10 days away from the start of the season. Hicks said that the family-like atmosphere at Halas Hall has led to success in keeping players safe from COVID-19.
"One of the things that's kept us in a good place as a team is that guys are taking it seriously," said Hicks, "guys are masking up, guys are making sure that they take every precaution that they can as far as keeping themselves and the rest of the team healthy. That's one of the biggest thoughts. Not only if I don't take care of business, will I get myself sick, but I'll hurt my other teammates, and my teammates have families and kids."
Hicks' presence upfront will be all the more critical without nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted out of the season. Potentially sharing the line with less-experienced players, Hicks hopes to return to form as the player who recorded 16 sacks between 2017 and 2018.
This season should provide the first extended look at how Hicks will perform in defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's system. Hicks feels the transition from former coordinator Vic Fangio has settled in.
"I would say this: Everybody's a little bit more comfortable," said Hicks. "We have some things that we've been familiar with over the past year, so any time that you get that continuity from your DC, guys just feel more comfortable. So I think that going into this season, we're going to be just a little bit more sharp on some of the things that we've tried to install and do over here for the past couple years."
Defensive tackle John Jenkins, who played with Hicks for the New Orleans Saints and an earlier stint with the Bears, believes that Hicks still has all the qualities that make him a special player.
"Akiem is the same Akiem I've known since New Orleans," said Jenkins. "This is my guy. He's been the same. Full of energy. A powerful guy. A force to be reckoned with on the field."
Jenkins compared Hicks to the character Sully from "Monsters Inc.," saying that Hicks could be an intimidating monster on the field and friendly off of it. Hicks has a habit of reminding his teammates of Disney movies, as linebacker Khalil Mack compared him to Mufasa from "The Lion King" last season.
Hicks' warm nature was on display when asked how he'd feel playing games in an empty Soldier Field.
"We are going to miss our people," said Hicks. "There's some faces in that crowd that I'm used to seeing when I suit up, and I get my lather going, and I'm getting ready to play. There's some faces that I'm used to seeing that I'm going to miss. I bring my own juice, though, so when I get fired up and get going, I'm ready to play football."