METAIRIE — For New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas, it seems the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same.
Now entering his fourth NFL season, Casillas finds himself once again battling a handful of veterans for a roster spot just as he did in the 2009 training camp as an undrafted rookie free agent from the University of Wisconsin.
Casillas beat the odds then, and he plans to buck them again.
The word around camp is don’t bet against him.
“Every year is a new challenge for me,’’ Casillas said after a recent training camp practice. “I embrace the competition.
“This is a new defense for me, and they brought in a lot of brand-new guys. I’ve missed the OTAs (organized team activities), so I got a lot of learning to do but I’m always up to the challenge.’’
The challenge is two-fold for Casillas this year.
One, he must get back on track after dealing with lower back issues during the offseason and missing the bulk of offseason workouts, And two, team officials beefed up the competition at linebacker, signing veteran free agents Curtis Lofton (Atlanta), David Hawthorne (Seattle) and Chris Chamberlain (St. Louis).
Granted, the Saints may be without veteran middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who currently is fighting his season-long suspension in the courts for his role in the bounty scandal. But veteran linebackers Scott Shanle and Will Herring remain in the mix, along with 2011 draft pick Nate Bussey, so Casillas has his work cut out for him.
“Jonathan had the back injury this offseason and there’s also a concern with me because this is an entirely new system for him,’’ Saints acting head coach Joe Vitt said. “Shanle has learned new systems before. David Hawthorne has learned new systems before and Lofton has been in the league a while.
“But we want Jonathan Casillas, we need him. He’s got a unique skill set. He’s got speed, redirection, he’s a good tackler and he’s an outstanding special teams player. Plus, he’s played at the highest level in big games. But he’s got to do it on the field. We’ve been highly encouraged the last couple of days the way he’s moving. He’s been going full speed, and you see him put his foot in the ground with the twitch. So I feel relieved and feel good that he’s back into it now mentally and physically.’’
Casillas said his back issues surfaced early during the offseason, perhaps, brought on by overtraining. Doctors and team officials opted to treat two degenerative disks around the L-4 and L-5 with a series of epidurals and the results, so far, have been encouraging.
“It’s not career threatening but it was pretty serious there for a while,’’ Casillas said. “I think it was probably something I did last season, and it just caught up with me. But I feel pretty good right now running around out there.
“It’s important that I warm up pretty good and ice it down. I got to treat it like the significant injury that it was and make sure it doesn’t happen again. It can linger if you’re not careful and it can come at you again. Your back is something you don’t want to have messing with you running around out there on the turf and banging with 300-pound guys. You want to take care ot it as best you can.’’
Meantime, Casillas also has to learn a new defensive scheme under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and time’s a wastin’.
The Saints open up their five-game exhibition schedule at 7 p.m. Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals in the annual Hall of Fame game at Canton, Ohio. Barring a setback, Casillas said all systems are go for him to play both strongside and weakside positions and special teams.
“This is just like my first year,’’ Casillas said. “I’m trying to take advantage of every rep that I can get, trying to get better with every rep, try not to make mistakes and show up on film.
“Everybody is out here with the same purpose. We want to make this team and help us get to the Super Bowl here in New Orleans. We’re going to have to prove to the whole nation that we’re still the Saints. Just because we’ve had a couple of suspensions and our coach is gone, we’re the same team with a lot of the same guys back, and I think we might be stronger in some areas. Hopefully we’ll show that, starting this week.’’