It’s time for the Saints to huddle up

When the New Orleans Saints report to training camp Thursday, with the first practice scheduled for Friday morning at their Metairie training facility, they’ll look a lot different than they did a year ago.

For fans who suffered through the frustration of a 7-9 season, ending the most successful three-year stretch in the franchise’s 46-year history, it can’t come quickly enough.

While each new season brings some change, the anticipation this time around is understandable for two notable reasons.

First, there’s the return of coach Sean Payton, who was banished for the 2012 season as part of the team’s bounty punishment. Payton was reinstated in late January, and his first training camp in two years marks a return to normalcy for the organization.

And the 3-4 defense, put in place by new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to replace a 4-3 scheme that yielded an NFL-record 7,042 total yards last season, will be a focus for the fans who turn out for 16 scheduled open practice sessions.

The Saints return to the field Thursday for a conditioning test after their six-week summer break. That followed a nine-week offseason program that included strength and conditioning work, a series of organized team activities and a mandatory three-day minicamp in June.

Before turning his players loose, Payton said the Saints had one of their better offseasons, mainly because it was devoid of distractions for the first time in four years.

“Coming off a disappointing year, I think we have enough veteran leadership on this team, and the players recognize we can be a lot better,” he said. “And we need to be better. I think it starts with that.”

Payton’s challenge is getting his team back to where it was from 2009-11, when the Saints put together a pair of 13-win regular seasons and won 11 games the other year. Counting the playoffs, they won 41 games during that stretch, including Super Bowl XLIV.

But while he wants to return to that level of play, Payton said he won’t talk to this year’s group about the team’s past success.

“Every year is different … so there is nothing promised,” he said. “There is a process of working hard, and obviously there are a lot of things that we have to improve on.”

One of the players looking forward to a new start has a new position as well. Will Smith, a 10-year veteran and the team’s longest-tenured player, has made the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker in the 3-4.

“Last year was one of those low moments, and we’re moving on from that,” Smith said. “This is a new and exciting year with a lot of new players in the locker room and a lot of new coaches. The team is progressing forward, and I think we have a lot of good things to come.”

Here are five things to watch during training camp:

1. New-look defense

Fans got a glimpse of the new 3-4 scheme during the June minicamp, but things will speed up during training camp — especially when the players put full pads on. Ryan is expected to bring swagger back to the defense — and certainly an aggressive style of play after last season’s debacle.

2. Battle at left tackle

Four-year veteran Charles Brown got most of the work with the first team during the veteran minicamp, but he’ll have to stay healthy to win the job and replace Jermon Bushrod. If Brown falters, two newcomers — veteran Jason Smith and third-round pick Terron Armstead — will be ready for their chance to protect Drew Brees’ blind side.

3. Who’s #3?

It will be interesting to see who steps up to take the role of Devery Henderson and be the third wide receiver behind Marques Colston and Lance Moore. While tight end Jimmy Graham is versatile enough to fill that spot in certain situations and formations, three youngsters — Joseph Morgan, Nick Toon and Kenny Stills — will try to get into the mix.

4. Running it up

The Saints averaged more than 130 yards per game and ranked sixth in the league in both 2009 and ’11, but they netted just 98.6 yards per game last year. While the passing game remains the weapon of choice, Payton is determined to run the ball more — and more effectively.

5. Eye on the secondary

The defense was gashed by the run last year, and it wasn’t great against the pass either. But Ryan likes physical play in the secondary, and the additions of cornerback Keenan Lewis in free agency and hard-hitting safety Kenny Vaccaro in the draft upgrade the back end and create competition for starting spots and in nickel and dime packages.