Former linebacker enjoys return to prep position
METAIRIE — An affirmation that he’s doing a decent job in his new role as a defensive end came for New Orleans Saints’ second-year pro Martez Wilson this weekend.
When injuries knocked three of the Saints’ linebackers out in a 27-24 setback to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Friday night, it would have been easy, perhaps even tempting, for the coaching staff to switch Wilson back to linebacker.
But there was no such talk, not even on Tuesday when a fourth linebacker — Ramon Humber — suffered a hamstring injury during practice.
“It was an interesting thought. … But to be honest with you, there was no thought to doing it,” new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said of the speedy Wilson, who played linebacker as a rookie in 2011. “He’s good where he is right now. We’ll work through the injuries.”
While the injuries were a setback for the Saints, who’ll line up and play a real game in just more than two weeks, no news was good news for Wilson.
“Oh yeah, I’m enjoying it. I love it,” the 6-foot-4, 252-pounder said earlier in training camp. “It’s no thinking, just rushing and banging heads with linemen and stopping the run.
“After that, it just becomes more of an experience thing. You know what moves to do depending on the scheme you’re getting, and you just know what to do to act faster.”
Make no mistake about it, faster is better for Wilson.
Before the Saints used one of their two third-round draft picks on him last spring, he opened their eyes when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds at the scouting combine.
It was something that certainly caught the eye of Spagnuolo, who loves to bring the speed from the perimeter of the defense with tall, lean players.
“I think speed is a power win any day,” said Wilson, who was slowed last season by a neck injury that he suffered in his first starting assignment in Week 3.
Spagnuolo certainly liked what Wilson can potentially bring to the new defense that he installed: a pass rush that was almost nonexistent last season in producing just 33 sacks.
“The change is going good for the team, too, as a whole because now that allows the speed coming from the edge,” said Wilson. “It’s helped all of us.”
When asked which position he likes best, Wilson smiled and said, “I like them both.”
But he feels more at home at defensive end, he said, because he played that position in high school — in addition to wide receiver — before becoming a standout middle linebacker at Illinois under former Saints defensive coordinator Ron Zook.
“I like defensive end a lot because you’re taking on the run differently,” Wilson said. “That feels more natural to me, even though I’m young at the position. It’s like starting all over, but I’m getting more comfortable as each day goes by.”
While learning on the run, Wilson is using his speed to take advantage of something else Spagnuolo likes to do: move around a lot to keep the offense off-balance.
“I actually like that a lot. I don’t like staying in one spot,” Wilson said. “That allows me to use that to my advantage because I feel like the coach is going to put me in the best position for the team and myself.
“I have the ability to go against the left tackle, the right tackle, left guard or right guard, so that feels good.”
It’s early in the transformation, but because of his length and speed, Wilson is already being compared to former Tennessee Titans’ All-Pro Jevon Kearse and New York Giants’ All-Pro Jason Pierre-Paul, one of the game’s top pass rushers.
“It’s a blessing. It’s an honor,” Wilson said. “Both of those guys are good. … Just having a comparison to two great defensive ends gives myself more confidence.”
Saints interim coach Joe Vitt, who also coaches the linebackers, said the versatility Wilson brings to the table will help with the zone-blitz schemes Spagnuolo favors.
In the zone-blitz, an end drops off the line to help in coverage while a cornerback or safety rushes the quarterback.
“I think we made the right decision doing that,” Vitt said of moving Wilson. “We’re going to be a little more of a zone pressure team, where he could potentially be man-to-man on a tight end coming out of a three-point stance.
“We’ve got three-deep zones and two-deep zones that he knows about. He’s continuing to get better every day.”
While pleased so far, Spagnuolo cautioned that the experiment is an ongoing process.
“Yes, he has a ways to go,” he said. “There are a lot of things that are really new to him. The pass rushing part, he’s done a little bit of that. But first and second down, on a tight end reading blocks, it’s new to him.”