NEW ORLEANS — Kenny Vaccaro spent four years at the University of Texas preparing for this past weekend, his first in uniform with the Saints.
And this NFL offseason, when the Saints spent millions to draft their new young playmaker — a gifted, motivated, personable, even marketable talent to headline the reconstruction of a historically horrid defense.
He’s a rookie they hope will earn a starting spot in the secondary and handle the roller-coaster emotional existence of celebration and letdowns based on Sunday afternoon performances.
If the Saints are able to get back to the playoffs next season, they likely will need Vaccaro to play a pivotal role in new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s aggressive scheme. Vaccaro’s former position coach believes his college experience prepared him for this moment.
“The exposure, the scrutiny he’s going to go through with the New Orleans Saints is nothing compared to playing here at the University of Texas,” said Duane Akina, defensive backs coach at Texas. “You live in such a fishbowl here.”
Same here, Kenny. Welcome to Who Dat Nation, where fans of the black and gold are eager to forget Bountygate, which led to the first season of non-playoff football since 2008.
En route to allowing the most yards in NFL history, last season’s defense allowed Robert Griffin III to start his NFL career with a road win; proved helpless against Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles and Denver’s Willis McGahee; and looked hapless against quarterbacks from Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Denver’s Peyton Manning to San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and the New York Giants’ Eli Manning.
While the lack of a pass rush and open-field tackles by all contributed to the woes, play at safety — the last line of defense — was a major contributor, from bad angles to poor tackling. Former Saints safety Darren Sharper, now an NFL analyst, said he was surprised the team didn’t utilize the 15th pick to improve the pass rush. Still, he likes what he has seen of Vaccaro on film.
“I think he’ll add a lot to that aggressive defense because he can do so much,” Sharper said. “He can line up as a slot defender or sit back in the secondary. ... It provides a lot of versatility for the defense.”
“I think it kind of opens your eyes a little more when you see a first-round draft pick (at your position),” Sharper said. “You say, ‘OK, I really know (my job is in jeopardy).’ ”
Strong safety Roman Harper or free safety Malcolm Jenkins — or is it Jenkins and Harper? — face potential demotions unless Ryan finds a way to get all three on the field in non-passing situations. Part of the answer will depend on how fast Vaccaro grasps the defense, as well as whether Harper and Jenkins return to their pre-2012 performances.
Both players have pledged to welcome Vaccaro because winning, no matter the lineup, is most important.
“The coaches are trying to bring a different type of attitude,” Harper said. “It’s very exciting to be around because there’s a lot of work going on right now. But it’s the same thing every year: Everybody is getting geared up to make a run at this thing. You’re glad to have the opportunity. Competition — the biggest thing we need is competition. I’m in my eighth year, and Malcolm’s in his fifth. If you don’t think that’s going to happen, you’re wrong.”
Perhaps the best compliment Akina gave to Vaccaro was that he maximized his potential. He became a leader, the face of a big-time college program, on the field and in the community.
Already one of the biggest, strongest and fastest, Vaccaro transformed into one of the smartest. He learned the game within the game, how to work out, how to push himself.
“He could just find that piece of leather and just go it,” Akina said. “It’s a good problem to have, to have to slow someone down rather than to speed them up. ... He literally wanted to be the best on the field.”
With the Saints, Vaccaro will enjoy the opportunity to do so again.
“I think he’s got that toughness and that suddenness that you would like at that position,” coach Sean Payton said. “I think he brings a physical dimension to his game ... and I think you can see it when you study the tape.”
Next it’s time to see it in person.