“That’s what the offseason is for, to work and try to improve yourself. Jimmy and David are great teachers. They helped me a lot in the last year with the transition to the NFL.” Michael Higgins, Saints tight end
The list of players the New Orleans Saints have mined from obscure schools in the past six years is a lengthy one.
Sure, contributors like Marques Colston (Hofstra), Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg State), Jermon Bushrod (Towson State), Chris Ivory (Tiffin College) and Junior Galette (Stillman) are well-known now to die-hard fans.
But they were anything but household names when they were drafted or signed by the Saints.
Tight end Michael Higgins, a second-year pro, could add his name to the list by the end of this month when the Saints reduce their roster to the regular-season limit of 53 players.
A 6-foot-5, 253-pounder, Higgins has had a solid training camp so far in his bid to nail down the third tight end spot behind Pro Bowler Jimmy Graham and veteran David Thomas.
He’ll try to take another positive step in that direction when the Saints (1-0) go against the New England Patriots (0-0) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Gillette Stadium.
Higgins qualifies as a relative unknown because he played his college football at Division II Nebraska-Omaha, a school that discontinued its program after the 2010 season.
“Nobody had any idea it was going to happen,” Higgins said. “That’s what was really tough for the players and coaches that were still there. We were under the impression they were going to have a (2011) season. All of a sudden, it was no longer true.”
At least Higgins was able to take away some fond memories from the school’s last game. In the 2010 season finale against Truman State, he caught what turned out to be the final pass in program history.
His 5-yard scoring reception with 30 seconds to play gave Nebraska-Omaha a 62-61 victory — six months before the decision to disband the team was made by school officials.
While Higgins caught 112 passes for 1,851 yards and 19 touchdowns in his college career, averaging an impressive 16.5 yards per reception, he knows what his role with the Saints is.
Signed as an undrafted free agent when the owners ended the lockout last July, he quickly made an impression on the team, although he didn’t make the 53-man roster.
He was signed to the practice squad, however, and did everything he could to absorb the offense and learn from Graham, Thomas and veteran John Gilmore, who is no longer with the team.
“I was very blessed to end up here,” Higgins said. “They gave me a good opportunity. It’s a great organization … they work to develop players, and they really helped me out. It’s worked out so far.”
After being released on the final cut last year, he was signed to the practice squad the next day and stayed there until Thomas was sidelined for the season with a second concussion in late November.
Higgins was inactive for four games, but played in two with one reception for 4 yards. He also had one catch in two playoff games.
During the offseason, Higgins continued his progression as he had the benefit of classroom work, organized team activities and a minicamp.
“Michael had a great offseason,” Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said early in camp. “The biggest thing you see in him now is the ability to block from the perimeter. Any player in his second year in the league benefits because they’ve had that rookie year to learn the game and learn the system.”
Higgins, who is viewed as a unique player by offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. because of his ability to catch and block, certainly agreed.
“I understand the offense and the concepts, those kinds of things,” Higgins said. “That’s what the offseason is for, to work and try to improve yourself. Jimmy and David are great teachers. They helped me a lot in the last year with the transition to the NFL.”
And it’s showing, veteran linebacker Scott Shanle said.
“Mike is one of the hardest-working guys on the team,” he noted. “When he got here last year, he was probably 20 pounds lighter. He looked like a wide receiver lining up at tight end. Now, he’s one of the best run-blocking tight ends we have.”
With Graham catching 99 passes and 11 touchdowns last season and Thomas being a capable receiver as well, Higgins knows if he makes the team his role won’t be in stretching the field for Drew Brees.
“Blocking will be a big part of my role, and I embrace that,” said Higgins, who added 12 pounds of muscle during the offseason. “Certainly, I just want to help the team out in any way I can. If that’s on special teams, if that’s on offense, wherever it may be, I just want to do whatever I can to help.”