Stephone Anthony’s ability to win a starting job for the New Orleans Saints will have as much to do with how he performs on the field as it does with what he says on the field.
Performing will be the easy part. Anyone with an Internet connection and the ability to type his name into a YouTube search can quickly familiarize himself with Anthony’s attributes as a football player. Where Anthony needs to show additional value is in his ability as a communicator.
Projected to play middle linebacker, perhaps even as a Day One starter, Anthony will need to prove he can lead a huddle, wear the communication device and relay information to his teammates. It’s a tall task for a rookie player who is still trying to learn the playbook and figure out where and how he fits, but the coaching staff is confident in Anthony’s ability to do the job.
“He’s very mature. It’s very important to him,” coach Sean Payton said Saturday. “He’s a real good communicator. All those were huge pluses. ... Getting a chance to see him articulate the defense, learn the defense — it’s awfully important to him. He’s got some of those traits.”
The Saints have asked Anthony to handle those responsibilities this week at rookie minicamp. So far, he said he’s comfortable in that role, and it isn’t all that different from what he was asked to do during his time at Clemson.
It’s also not unprecedented for a rookie to wear the communication device. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had linebacker Kirk Morrison handle those duties as a rookie when both were in Oakland during the 2005 season.
Curtis Lofton previously handled communication duties for New Orleans before being released this offseason, and Payton pointed out that David Hawthorne, who will also be competing for the Mike linebacker spot, has experience doing the job. And while it’s not a requirement to play the position — Sean Lee, who played Will linebacker, did the job for Ryan in Dallas — it’s preferred that the Mike leads the huddle.
It’s not an easy task, and it’s too soon to know whether Anthony will do the job, but the coaching staff sees reasons for optimism.
“I think this guy is a special guy,” Ryan said. “He’s one we identified as being the best inside ’backer in the draft. We’re excited about him. He’s really smart. He loves football. Everything we’ve put at him, he’s run like he’s run it a million times.”
Anthony already feels comfortable in the role. He sees similarities between this defense and the one he mastered at Clemson. Some of the language and concepts are the same. That has made the transition easier.
He said the learning curve hasn’t been too steep, and he embraces the parts that have been difficult. But mostly it feels natural. He said football is football. And part of football, at least for a middle linebacker, is communicating in the huddle.
“It’s part of the game. It’s my job now,” he said. “You just have to take it head-on and do the best you can.”
Around the corner from Anthony’s makeshift locker in the middle of the New Orleans locker room stands the temporary stall for one of Anthony’s former teammates, Tavaris Barnes. The two didn’t take the same path here. Anthony was selected in the first round; Barnes, a defensive end, hooked on as an undrafted free agent.
Barnes has been in plenty of huddles with Anthony. He was the leader of the Clemson defense. He gave speeches, called plays and did whatever he had to do to get his team ready for action. Barnes believes in Anthony. He always has, and he sees no reason why he can’t do the same in the NFL.
“He’s a great leader, man. He’s going to bring it every day,” Barnes said. “He’s going to make sure the squad is on point. He’s going to make sure he gets the call. He’s going to make sure we’re ready. When we go out there, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get it.’ That’s what we need — a vocal leader. He was that way at Clemson for four years.”
Was his leadership effective?
“I believe that’s why he was a first-round pick,” Barnes said.
It was part of what attracted the Saints to Anthony. He can play.
If he can speak as effectively as he plays, he could be leading the huddle during his first snap as an NFL player.