METAIRIE - After playing sparingly as an undrafted free agent in 2009, New Orleans Saints weakside linebacker Jonathan Casillas put his best foot forward last summer and landed a starting job with the reigning Super Bowl champions.
But with one bad step, it was all taken away from the former University of Wisconsin standout.
Three weeks after earning a starting job, Casillas’ season ended - exactly one week before the regular-season opener. In the final preseason game with the Tennessee Titans, Casillas suffered a Lisfranc fracture of his left foot and was lost for the season after he underwent surgery.
A Lisfranc fracture occurs where a cluster of small bones forms an arch on top of the foot between the ankle and toes. Saints running back Chris Ivory suffered the same injury in the regular-season finale and still isn’t fully recovered.
To this day, Casillas still doesn’t know what ended his promising season.
“I was just tackling someone, a one-on-one tackle,” he said. “I watched it on film and it looked like a routine tackle. I didn’t feel a pop or anything, but when I walked to the sideline my foot was flat.
“It was weird. It swelled up real fast, and I had surgery a few days later.”
During the regular season, the only thing Casillas could find solace in was the fact that he’d turned coach’s heads, as he did when he won a roster spot in 2009, to earn a starting job.
He had shown something while backing up four-year starter Scott Shanle at the weakside spot, which turned out to be a blessing for the Saints after they lost strongside ‘backer Scott Fujita in free agency.
When Troy Evans and Jo-Lonn Dunbar failed to fill Fujita’s shoes in organized team activities and first two weeks of training camp, the versatile Shanle took over on the strong side, and Casillas was inserted into the lineup.
To have it end in a meaningless preseason game, one in which the starters play very little - if at all - made it even tougher for Casillas to swallow.
“It was very frustrating. I did fairly well last year, and I felt the preseason went very, very well,” he said. “I put a lot of hard work into it, and I kind of felt like it got taken away from me. It was very heartbreaking, but at the same time, I knew that I would have another chance this year.
“I had to just kind of put it all behind me and rehab, and I had to be all in with it because it was a long process,” said Casillas, who had to have two surgical procedures. “If I wasn’t dedicated to it, I wouldn’t be here right now, and I wouldn’t be able to practice.”
So far, the 6-foot-1, 227-pound Casillas has picked up where he left off on that warm Nashville night last Sept. 2. He’s had to establish himself for the third time in three training camps, but is pleased with how things have gone.
“My first year, I was undrafted; and my second year was the same way because I didn’t play a lot that first year,” he said. “I had to prove myself. Now, coming off this injury, I’ve had to prove myself again.
“So it’s been the same thing my three years in the league. I’ve become more and more motivated every year. I’m being a smarter person on and off the field, and I’m a more complete football player and a better person.”
But he knows that he has to stay on the field. Casillas had injuries in college that drove his draft stock down, and then he had to deal with the foot.
“Throughout my career, even in college, when I’m on the field I play pretty well,” he said. “But if you’re not on the field and not playing, you won’t be able to make any plays. As long as I’m out there, I’ll be fine.”
Naturally, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is one of those people who want to see him on the field, and not on the sideline.
“He has to prove that he can be available week-in and week-out,” Williams said of his promising youngster. “It doesn’t make a difference if somebody has talent. We have cut a lot of players that have had lots of talent. But if you’re not available, you become a reporter, a coach, or an insurance salesman. But you’re not a professional athlete.
“So you have to be available. (Linebacker) is a brutal and tough position, and this is a production business. I love seeing Jonathan Casillas practice, but I would like to see him play more.”