Playing with Drew Brees under center is a far cry from playing at Grand Valley State, a NCAA Division II school in Allendale, Mich.
But undrafted rookie guard/center Tim Lelito of the New Orleans Saints found himself in the same huddle with Brees during the first quarter of Sunday’s 31-23 victory against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium, an experience he isn’t likely to forget anytime soon.
Lelito, 24, entered the game on the Saints’ second possession at right guard and was part of a three-play, 80-yard scoring drive that featured a 29-yard screen pass to Mark Ingram and a 51-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown by Pierre Thomas.
By the way, Lelito takes zero credit for those plays.
“The game changes drastically when you go from the second-team guys to the first-team guys,’’ said the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Lelito.
“It just gets so much faster. Drew’s cadence is so much faster. I know I was late off the ball a lot of times because he wants the ball right now. He can see in his head, visually, what’s happening before it even happens. He wants it now.’’
Lelito’s presence with the first unit, in the most meaningful game of the preseason, indicates the improvement he has made since joining the team in late April. He currently is running second-team at right guard and finds himself in contention for a spot on the 53-man roster.
“I didn’t expect to be playing with the ones when I came here,’’ Lelito said. “I was just trying to basically make this team as a backup guy. I’m trying to do everything I can to make this roster. I’m trying to play to my strengths; play quick, play physical and aggressive like I know I can. But being late off the ball makes it hard to do that.’’
Saints coach Sean Payton said Lelito will get playing time at guard and center Thursday night against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. Kickoff is 6:30 p.m.
“(Lelito) is athletic and he’s powerful, and he’s done a good job for a rookie offensive lineman,’’ Payton said.
Many starters will not play against the Dolphins, though Payton said some will see a limited amount of snaps before calling it a night.
Payton has two major goals in the exhibition finale: avoid injuries and give players on the bubble one final chance to shine.
“I’d like to see some of these younger players in the kicking game,’’ he said. “There are still a handful of guys who still want to make an impression, you would say their opportunity to make a lasting impression. I’ve been a lot of places where guys have made the team on this last preseason game. So the kicking game will be important.’’
Brees is not expected to play. Backup Luke McCown is expected to start with rookie Ryan Griffin taking the bulk of snaps from the second quarter on.
“I’m sure what we do offensively and defensively won’t be too exotic, and yet you want to see some of the fundamentals that we’ve been coaching all during camp show up on film,’’ Payton said.
As captain of special teams the past two seasons, reserve wide receiver Courtney Roby has found a niche for himself in New Orleans. But with the emergence of wide receivers Preston Parker and Andy Tanner in training camp, plus the need for Payton to address the depth at other positions, one wonders about Roby’s job security.
Past special teams captains Troy Evans and Pierson Prioleau were cut in 2010 and ’11, respectively.
The Saints will end their exhibition schedule at the site of the franchise’s most significant victory, at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., where they defeated the Indianapolis 31-17 on Feb. 7, 2010, to win Super Bowl XLIV.
It seems the perfect backdrop for Payton to get his team — and himself — in the right frame of mind as it embarks on a new season.
The 2013 Saints are trying to pull of a franchise first and finish undefeated in the preseason. The Saints have exited the preseason with one loss on 11 different occasions, including 2009 when they went 3-1 and later won the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
They have finished 5-1 twice — their inaugural season of 1967 and again in 1977.
The Saints must pare their roster from 75 to 53 by 5 p.m. Saturday. The claiming period for players placed on waivers at the final roster reduction expires at 11 a.m. Sunday. Simultaneously, teams can begin filling their eight-man practice squads beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday.
The Cleveland Browns on Wednesday claimed undrafted rookie outside linebacker Eric Martin, who was waived by the Saints on Tuesday. Martin got off to a fast start in training camp but made little noise in three preseason games, with one special-teams tackle.
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