WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Parys Haralson knows what great middle linebackers look like.
He was in San Francisco when the 49ers drafted both Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. Curtis Lofton roamed the middle of the Saints defense the past two years.
Now, Haralson finds himself looking at another middle linebacker, a first-round pick who hit the ground running as soon as he landed in New Orleans, and Haralson can’t help but see the same things in Stephone Anthony.
“The guys I’ve played with, it’s like they all take the same steps,” Haralson said. “Coming in, he’s serious about football, you can just tell by the way they carry themselves on and off the field, the way he prepares for practice, the way he prepares and takes care of his body right now.”
Anthony, the Clemson product with prototypical size at 6-3, 245 pounds, has proven he’s got the mind to match his athletic ability early in training camp.
Offered a chance to run the Saints’ No. 1 defense with veteran Dannell Ellerbe out with an injury, Anthony has taken charge, making calls and checks like a seasoned veteran. Five days into training camp, New Orleans hasn’t moved much past its base defenses, but Anthony has also been largely mistake-free as a signal caller.
Unlike other rookies, Anthony hasn’t been asked to make a call and found himself at a loss for words.
“Not quite yet,” Anthony said. “I’ve been able to stay on top of my checks right now, but I know that time’s coming, and I’ll have to act like I know what I’m doing.”
New Orleans has given Anthony as many snaps as he can handle. In 11-on-11 work, Anthony has taken all of the snaps next to veteran David Hawthorne, then come back and run the defense again with the third team to get more work. So far, Anthony has been so reliable as a signal-caller that Saints coach Sean Payton crossed it off the list of things Anthony needed to prove during training camp.
“I think it’s an asset to me to have the headset on. I wish I would have had one of those in college,” Anthony said. “You get your call and you get lined up. You don’t have to worry about finding the call, so it makes the process a little bit faster.”
And now that the Saints are in pads, Anthony’s been able to prove he’s just as capable of making highlight plays in the running game as he was in the passing game over the summer.
Anthony scrapes hard to the point of attack, takes on blocks well and finishes in the backfield when he gets a chance. On the Saints’ first day in pads, Anthony made two tackles-for-loss in a drill designed to pit the offense against the defense in the running game, and he made another tackle for loss by ranging sideline-to-sideline to get to a running back on Monday.
“The thing you’ve got to love about him is you heard him out there,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “He hits people, he knocks people back, and we are in that business. It’s fun to watch.”
Now, the only question is whether or not Anthony can fight his way into the starting lineup by the season opener.
New Orleans shifted Hawthorne into the middle over the offseason to make up for the loss of Lofton, but with Ellerbe sidelined — he returned to participate in the Saints’ walk-through Monday night — the Saints moved Hawthorne back to the weak side, indicating that Anthony has already earned a spot among the Saints’ top three linebackers.
Typically reserved in interviews, Anthony has made it clear he wants to make an impact.
“That’s the ultimate goal,” Anthony said. “I want to be great, and I want those guys to respect me. I want those guys to look at me and see somebody they can count on.”
His teammates wouldn’t be surprised.
Haralson watched both Willis and Bowman, two of the NFL’s best at the position in recent years, enter the league in San Francisco.
He sees the same type of promise in Anthony.
“I think right now he’s one of those guys that you look at and know in a couple years is going to be one of those elite linebackers,” Haralson said. “He’s smart. He’s fast, he’s physical and he works hard. He’s got a bright future.”