Move to cornerback paved Patrick’s path to Saints
METAIRIE — If Johnny Patrick had known back in 2006 what he knows now, he might have saved himself some time and trouble and stayed much closer to home to play football for the University of Florida.
In a strange recruiting twist, the DeLand, Fla., native passed on a scholarship offer from Florida because the Gators coaches wanted him to be a cornerback.
Instead, he went to Louisville to play wide receiver, but wound up at corner anyway halfway through his redshirt freshman season.
Patrick is glad he made an about-face and asked then-Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe, who now is on the LSU staff, to move to the other side of the ball because it helped get him to the NFL as a third-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints last year.
“I was a receiver for a year-and-a-half and things just weren’t working out, so I asked coach Kragthorpe if I could play corner,” said Patrick. “It was the sixth game of the season, and I started the rest of my career.”
The formerly reticent cornerback settled in nicely at his new position and put up eye-catching career numbers with 171 tackles, nine interceptions and 22 passes defended.
He also blocked two field goals and was a first-team All-Big East selection as a senior with five interceptions, which landed him on the NFL’s radar as one of the higher-rated cornerbacks in the 2011 draft.
In fact, new Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who at the time of the 2011 draft was head coach of the St. Louis Rams, said he remembers Patrick being a player Rams scouts talked about in their draft room.
“He was an impressive guy in college and a lot of people had an eye on him,” said Spagnuolo. “I’m glad that he’s here with us.”
Despite a tough start with the Saints, considering he had no offseason after being drafted because of the owners lockout, and suffering a sprained knee in the first preseason game, Patrick made the most of a bad situation.
The knee injury came after he had worked his way onto the second-team defense when Tracy Porter was injured and also got some snaps as the starter in the nickel, or five defensive backs, package.
“It was very frustrating, that adversity I was going through,” Patrick said. “But I bounced back and was out only three weeks when I was supposed to miss four-to-six weeks. I stayed mentally focused, and right now I have another opportunity to do what I can do out there.”
While Patrick was simply trying to get acclimated to the pro game a year ago at this time, he’s well ahead of the curve now.
He’s working with the second-team defense behind starter Patrick Robinson, who replaced Porter when he signed with the Denver Broncos this spring, and is the starting nickel back.
“Everything is a lot smoother than last year,” Patrick said. “You’re not trying to wait around and see what’s going on. You feel like a veteran having that year in, so I’m a little more comfortable than last year.”
Patrick said the biggest improvement from his first year had to do with how he went about his business on the field and in the meeting room.
“Mentally, vocally, growing up more,” he said. “I felt like my physical capabilities were there. I just had to learn the other parts of the game.”
While Patrick has been playing more nickel so far in training camp, he stepped in as the starter at right corner when Robinson injured his shoulder midway through Sunday’s practice.
But switching back from the nickel won’t be a problem, Patrick said.
“The nickel is a tough position because you have to play a lot more of the field than just the outside so it’s a little more difficult,” he said. “But I feel with lot of coaching and a lot of practice I can handle it.
“You have to be mentally ready to play that position. Obviously, you have to have talent, too, because they put their best (receivers) in the slot. I’m ready for the competition.”
Patrick said Porter, who played four seasons with the Saints and cemented the team’s Super Bowl XLIV victory with a 74-yard interception return for a touchdown in the closing minutes, helped him learn the ropes at the position last season even though he didn’t have to.
“Tracy was very helpful even though he knew I was a young guy trying to come in and compete for his position,” said Patrick. “He was a great leader, he was a great friend and a great teammate. He was always ready to help and would teach me anything no matter what it was.”
Being a versatile player in Spagnuolo’s new system, which uses zone coverages instead of the man-to-man favored by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, also helps his chances of seeing significant playing time this season.
“It’s a little mix of everything,” said Patrick. “But I played a little bit of everything at Louisville because we had four different defensive coordinators. So I have a pretty good feel for it.”