WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — The New Orleans Saints have high hopes that their 2015 rookie class can make an immediate impact, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Two days into training camp, the Saints are already showing some confidence in a pair of first-year linebackers at key positions.
First-round pick Stephone Anthony and second-round pick Hau’oli Kikaha spent the entire 11-on-11 portion of Friday’s practice working with the starters on defense, fueling the hope that the pair could immediately assume key roles for a defense trying to rediscover the magic it had in 2013.
“(Veteran linebacker Dannell) Ellerbe sat out this morning’s practice,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We kicked Hawthorne to the Will (linebacker), and Stephone to the Mike, and so (Anthony) had the communication.”
Anthony’s move, in particular, appears to be a sign the Saints think the rookie will press for a starting job.
Offering Ellerbe time to rest has been common throughout the summer, a necessary move as the Saints help Ellerbe recover fully from the hip surgery that ended his season with the Dolphins last year. When Ellerbe was sidelined during the summer, New Orleans usually replaced him with veteran backup Ramon Humber. Hawthorne never slid out of the middle linebacker spot, making the calls for the first team while Anthony handled the second-team work at the position.
Only two days into camp, the Saints are now comfortable enough in Anthony’s abilities to start testing Hawthorne out as a running mate for the rookie on the weak side, the position the veteran has played in each of the last three seasons with New Orleans. If Anthony takes hold of the starting job, the Saints could use a combination of Hawthorne and Ellerbe to keep both veterans fresh.
“ ‘Heater’ (Hawthorne) has played Will, so he’s got the versatility, and there’s a couple of things there,” Payton said. “A young player’s learning Mike (linebacker), and then obviously, David’s played both.”
Anthony made all of the calls for the defense on Friday, another good sign in an impressive offseason for the Clemson product. New Orleans already feels comfortable placing Anthony in charge of the huddle.
“I think he’s pretty good that way,” Payton said. “Is it part of the position? Yeah. Based on being a signal-caller and a middle linebacker, I think he’ll handle that transition pretty well.”
Kikaha’s chance on the first team is also encouraging. A defensive end at Washington, the pass rusher has already made the transition to outside linebacker well enough that he kept veteran free agent Anthony Spencer on the second team througout practice.
Now, both Anthony and Kikaha have to prove themselves once the team puts on full pads on Saturday to keep their momentum going.
“Well, it’s early,” Payton said. “So it’s hard to evaluate linebackers.”