Two years ago, Saints quarterbacks coach Mike Neu and undrafted free agent running back Derrick Strozier were toiling away for a Tulane team that finished 2-10.
In the midst of those struggles, they were building a path from the Green Wave’s uptown campus to Metairie for the Saints’ first organized team activity sessions last week.
Neu tutored current Saints backup quarterback Ryan Griffin in what became a terrific individual season. Operating a modified version of the Saints offense under former Saints wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson, Griffin completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 2,771 yards. He threw for a school-record 466 yards against UAB, then surpassed that mark a week later with 476 against Rice.
Strozier moved to running back from defensive back during spring drills in an experiment that ended four games into the fall, but that limited opportunity made it possible for him to play offense after college when he was deemed too small (5-foot-8, 181 pounds) to get a look at his natural position of cornerback.
New Orleans hired Neu as quarterbacks coach in February to replace Joe Lombardi, who left to become the Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator.
“The meetings are run just like they did before except, instead of Joe Lombardi’s voice, it’s Mike Neu’s voice,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “Tulane ran the same offense with Curtis Johnson coming from here. A lot of this stuff is familiar for him, so he’s able to add a lot.”
The Saints offered Strozier a training-camp roster spot after he excelled at running back last month at their rookie minicamp.
“The one thing I always appreciated about Derrick at Tulane was just to see how hard of a worker he was,” Neu said.
“He was very quiet, just came to work every day and produced every week — whether it was defensively or the little bit of time he got there offensively.”
Without that experience in 2012, it is unlikely Neu or Strozier would be at Saints camp this summer.
After Griffin graduated, Tulane had one of the worst passing offenses in the country last season, ranking 101st out of 123 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in yards and 108th in efficiency.
Quarterbacks Nick Montana and Devin Powell completed only 53.5 percent of their throws with 16 interceptions.
Despite Neu’s history as a college scout for the Saints from 2009-11, his ascension to Brees’ position coach would have been a tough sell with only last year’s numbers and a five-year stint as coach of the Arena Football League’s New Orleans VooDoo on his recent résumé.
“It’s just kind of been a whirlwind,” he said. “It’s gone fast, but it’s been great. Everybody would love the opportunity to work with a guy like Drew Brees. I’m fortunate to be here working with coach (Sean) Payton, Pete Carmichael and this staff.”
Brees’ comfort level with Neu is evident: Neu sat in on the quarterback meetings when he was a Saints scout.
“I really like Mike — there’s a rapport there,” Brees said. “It’s not like he’s coming in cold turkey, never having worked together or met before. He’s falling into that role very well.”
Strozier felt the same familiarity when he was invited to the rookie minicamp for a tryout.
His numbers in his brief excursion at running back for Tulane were underwhelming — four carries for 12 yards and 11 catches for 60 yards — but he gained an understanding of the position that he applied last month.
“I was very comfortable in the Saints offense,” he said. “It was just a system that I could adapt to easily. The coaches did a great job of showing me the plays and emphasizing the routes I needed to run. I showed them what I had, and they liked what they saw.”
When his college career ended in the New Orleans Bowl in December, Strozier was not sure he would get a shot at the NFL.
As a senior, he had 54 tackles, a team-high 17 deflections and two touchdowns (one on a blocked kick return, the other on an interception), but he knew defense was an unlikely option.
“I looked into using my Tulane degree and ... getting a job in investment banking,” he said.
“Then the Saints told me they had a great opportunity to come in there and possibly make the squad at running back.
“At the end of the day, I’m just out there trying to fight for a spot like everybody else.”