WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Charles Hawkins lives his dream every day at Saints training camp, wearing the jersey of his hometown team.
“Every kid that’s from New Orleans wants to play for the Saints,” said Hawkins, a receiver who went to St. Augustine High School and Southern.
Running back Derrick Strozier is a Florida transplant who made Tulane his college home. Surrounded by Who Dats, he become one.
“All my friends were Saints fans,” he said. “Everybody in the city is a Saints fan, so I had no choice but to be a Saints fan myself.”
Now, the two depth-chart long shots are trying this summer to earn spots on the regular-season roster — Hawkins with his speed and resiliency, Strozier with, well, the same plus some muscle.
It won’t be easy.
The Saints selected Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks 20th in the 2014 draft, adding a speedy and shifty talent to an already-crowded group of receivers. Last season, the Saints carried five receivers on their regular-season roster.
At running back, it’s hard enough for Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas to split carries with the emerging Travaris Cadet, who also plays on special teams. It’s possible for all four to be active this fall on gameday.
But if you’re going to enter the NFL as an undrafted free agent (Strozier) or unheralded free agent with minimum NFL experience (Hawkins), the Saints are the franchise to do it with.
Last season’s regular-season roster included six rookie free agents. Receiver Marques Colston, linebacker Junior Galette and running back Khiry Robinson are just part of a list of guys who came to the Saints with a less-than-impressive résumé, only to rack up plenty of receptions, sacks and yards.
“Every time you get out there, you want to make the best out of every play, every day,” Strozier said. “Because you never know when it’s your last. But at the same time, you want to remain calm, relaxed and just go out there and have fun.”
Hawkins and Strozier are practice squad candidates. Such an accomplishment, though, falls short of their immediate goal of contributing in 2014.
“Just like every other rookie out here, I’m trying to fight for a spot,” said Strozier, a former college running back who started 11 games last season at nickelback, leading the Green Wave in pass breakups (14). He also posted three interceptions and 54 tackles. “I’m just working. Anything can happen, so I’m just trying to take advantage of every opportunity.”
So is Hawkins, who has spent time with Arizona and Detroit. At Southern, he caught 31 passes for 467 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior in 2012.
“I wasn’t focused enough,” he said of his college experience, later explaining his challenge of balancing co-eds and football. “I think if I would have played better at Southern, I would have been in a better situation. I didn’t, and everything happened for a reason. But now, I look at the game totally different. I just want to make plays; I just want to contribute. I just want to be that explosive guy: catch the ball and get upfield.”
He has done so through the first two weeks of camp, often stretching the defense with speed and finishing his catches.
Asked who is faster — him or Cooks, who ran a 4.30-second 40 at the NFL combine — Hawkins said it would be a tie.
“I mean, I can run a little bit,” he said, smiling.
Sometimes, Hawkins admitted, he runs too fast — like earlier this week, when he had a defender beat but had to come back for a ball.
Both Hawkins and Strozier have been Saints fans long enough to remember Courtney Roby (2008-12), a receiver whose special teams antics led to a successful career.
“He made a lot of plays, a lot of returns,” Hawkins said. “He made a lot of tackles. That’s a guy that I can watch film on and see what he’s done.”