THE EAGLES' coaching staff was thrilled to discover what it had in Jordan Hicks last season. Hicks, a third-round rookie from Texas, stepped in as a starter in Week 3 and constantly made plays, rarely stepped wrong. He picked up the system effortlessly, showed speed, instincts, toughness.

If Hicks was "Simba" to DeMeco Ryans' "Mufasa," as former coach Chip Kelly and Hicks' teammates alleged, Hicks' ability to think in sync with Ryans allowed Ryans to be much more effective running down prey than he was after Hicks went down with a torn pectoral tendon, in the eighth game of the season, at Dallas.

There's a new coaching staff now and a new scheme, but no indication anyone is less enthralled with Hicks' potential. Hicks confirmed Wednesday what head coach Doug Pederson said last month at the NFL meetings - Hicks is the Eagles' middle linebacker this spring, flanked by Mychal Kendricks at WIL and Nigel Bradham at SAM.

Mufasa has fallen into the stampeding herd of wildebeests, or, at least, the NFL's version of that: Ryans slowed down a little, was making a lot of money, and his team had a younger, cheaper replacement on hand in Hicks.

"If I ever had any question, any concern, he was somebody I could go to. He was always available," Hicks said of Ryans, who was released in February. "As a leader, the one thing he told me - I texted him, as soon as I heard the news (of Ryans' release) - the one piece of advice he gave me was, 'Don't be afraid to speak up. The guys respect you. You've proved yourself. You have to step into that role, and don't be afraid to speak up.' "

Hicks said he isn't put off moving from Bill Davis' 3-4 to Jim Schwartz's 4-3, from inside linebacker to MIKE.

"It's something I've done quite a bit of. I played it in college," he said.

But of course, he didn't play it for Schwartz, behind defensive ends who will frequently pin their ears back in a Wide 9.

"A lot of it, schemewise, is just 'Attack. Attack. Attack. D-line, just go.' That's his mentality, is go, and the linebackers clean it up," Hicks said. "I think it makes you rely more on your instincts."

Is Hicks the key to making the setup work?

"I think there's different focuses for different positions," he said. "Obviously, the corners are one-on-one a lot. They've gotta be able to hold up, and the d-line's gotta go, and we gotta clean up, so we've all got our different things we've got to be able to do to make the puzzle fit."

Hicks mentioned defensive lineman Fletcher Cox - absent so far from these optional workouts as negotiations continue on a longterm contract - and safety Malcolm Jenkins as established defensive leaders who will help fill the void left by Ryans. But, yeah, Hicks expects to be part of the leadership group, as he approaches his 24th birthday in June.

"Why not? If you have respect, and you're one of the leaders on the team, somebody's got to do it, right?" he asked.

"Obviously, the MIKE linebacker has a lot of leadership responsibility. So, it's not something I'm shying away from. I'm going to continue to work on that and build into that role, but we have a lot of leaders on this defense . . . I'm just a piece in the puzzle."

Hicks acknowledged he gets recognized off the field by fans now, sometimes.

"A little bit. You know, I'm not Connor Barwin, a 6-6 dude with a combover," Hicks said. (Barwin probably would like someone to point out that he is 6-4, and that he has a full head of hair, however trendily he coifs it.)

Hicks showed the same traits in college he showed with the Eagles last season. He lasted until the third round of the draft because of concerns about his durability. Hicks suffered significant hip (2012) and Achilles' (2013) injuries at Texas.

Hicks said he can't worry about what he can't control, but if there is anything he can do to prevent ligament and tendon tears, he wants to do it. He said he was "getting blood work done" in an effort to find out more about his body.

"That's something I'm trying to tackle, and I really do think it's behind me. Does it give me something to prove? Absolutely . . . I'm doing everything I possibly can to learn about myself, to understand my body, to tackle that side of it, so when I am on the field, I won't have anything to worry about," he said.

Hicks said it would be a mistake to try to emulate Ryans' personality.

"I just gotta continue to be me. If I try to be anybody else other than me, that's not what earns respect," he said. "You earn respect by hard work ethic, by showing your teammates you're reliable, and being yourself."

@LesBowen

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