Free agent linebacker Henry Coley keeps his NFL dream alive by making a solid impression at Saints camp _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints LB Henry Coley (52) is amazed that the team is practicing in a driving thunderstorm Monday afternoon at White Sulphur Springs, WV. Lighting eventually cancelled the hour-long walk-thru practice.

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Henry Coley had to chase down his second chance at the NFL in pain.

Coley, a linebacker out of Virginia, went undrafted, then failed to pick up a contract from any team in the initial post-draft signing frenzy.

All he had were two tryout chances — with the Baltimore Ravens and the New Orleans Saints. The Ravens came first, and Coley walked away from their rookie minicamp with no contract and a significant problem heading into his trip to Metairie. His feet felt like he’d been asked to walk on hot coals to get to the NFL.

“It was a struggle,” Coley said. “I was with the Ravens the week before, and I had some type of cleats with the Ravens, I lost a lot of skin on my feet.”

The loss of skin directly affected the part of Coley’s body that had the most to prove. The former middle linebacker ran a 4.95 40-yard dash at his pro day, a number that placed him among the slowest linebackers in the draft and probably had something to do with his inability to land a contract. If Coley was going to make the NFL, he had to prove he could run.

And then, in Metaire, his feet were on fire.

“I was just running, running like I probably never have before, and trying to secure that spot,” Coley said.

Coley impressed enough to earn a spot on the all-important 90-man training camp roster, ensuring that his NFL dream would get off the practice field and into preseason games, where roster spots and extra chances can be won.

Fast forward three months, and Coley is drawing some attention by excelling at a different role than he’s always played..

“My whole life, my nickname’s always been Henry ‘the Hammer’ Coley,” Coley said. “Thumping is my game. I like the physical play, the physical nature of football, so run-stopping of course, but they’re making me a pass-coverage linebacker out here.”

Coley has proven up to the task. In Sunday’s practice, Coley ran step-for-step in downfield coverage against tight end Alex Smith and running back Marcus Murphy, a trait that has been evident throughout camp, and he’s been just as effective on short throws. Coley reads the offense well and closes quickly, and he’s made two interceptions on screen passes during training camp with his instincts.

The biggest obstacle to the 53-man roster for Coley might be the depth at his position. New Orleans is loaded with veterans at inside linebacker — David Hawthorne, Dannell Ellerbe and Ramon Humber all factor in there — and the Saints drafted rookie Stephone Anthony in the first round, a player who looks like he might start right away. With all the depth at linebacker, Coley might have a hard time making the initial 53, but he’s definitely a strong practice squad candidate at this point.

“It’s definitely tough, but at the same time you have those veteran guys that are showing you the ropes, too,” Coley said. “I’m just trying to be a sponge and soak up as much as possible.”