‘A big surprise’

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, is tackled by New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Mitch King (75) and defensive end Turk McBride (90) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Friday, Aug. 12, 2011.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, is tackled by New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Mitch King (75) and defensive end Turk McBride (90) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Friday, Aug. 12, 2011.

Hardly anyone noticed when the New Orleans Saints signed former University of Iowa defensive tackle Mitch King to the practice squad just before the 2010 season finale against the Tampa Bay Bucs.

And no one batted an eye when King, who played in four games with the Indianapolis Colts last season, was signed to a futures contract by the Saints before the lockout of players by the owners.

Take a quick glance at the 6-foot-2, 280-pounder and you’ll see why King looks out of place alongside the other members of the interior of the Saints defensive line - namely Shaun Rogers (6-4, 350), Aubrayo Franklin (6-1, 317), Sedrick Ellis (6-1, 307) and Swanson Miller (6-4, 310).

But, as King and Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson will tell you, it’s not always about size in the NFL. Which is why King has flashed some skills in his team’s first two exhibition games.

“Mitch plays with a lot of effort, a lot of effort and energy,” said Johnson. “I’ll be honest, when he came in here I thought he was just a guy that came in for a camp-roster spot.”

“But he’s been a big surprise to me,” he said. “He’s a good football player with good instincts.”

The 25-year-old King entered the NFL in 2009 as an undrafted free agent with the Tennessee Titans just three months after scouts raved about his “violent hands and high motor” at the Senior Bowl workouts.

After being projected as a late-round draft pick, King, who earned All-Big 10 honors as a senior and was the league’s Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2008, was passed over in the draft and wound up with the Titans.

He was released on the final cut that year, then spent time with the Colts a year ago. He was also on the St. Louis Rams practice squad before getting a call from the Saints.

“I had some injuries, and unfortunately, I got released,” King said. “But I was lucky enough that the Saints picked me up and gave me a chance. So I’m just here to do what I can.”

While he’s a long shot to still be with the Saints when the final cuts are made on Sept. 3, King is getting the next-best thing. He’s showing up on tape, which scouts from all over the league pore over.

“I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch by any means,” he said. “I only know that I’m here just to play ball like I can and have fun doing it.”

King has done that even though he was sidelined for a couple of practices in the first week of camp because of atrial fibrillation, which is an arrhythmia of the heart that causes it to beat faster, though sometimes slower, than normal.

King said he’s never experienced that before, but doctors cleared him to return to practice and play in games.

“Those big words are up for the doctors to tell you what they stand for and what they mean,” he said. “But they told me I’m clear to go, so I was ready to practice and ready to get out there.”

King proved it just 1-1/2 weeks after returning to the practice field.

In a 24-3 preseason victory over the San Francisco 49ers, he used his 4.82 speed in the 40 to record a sack among his six tackles - the second-highest total on the team. Two of the tackles were behind the line and he also had two quarterback hurries.

“The numbers showed up good,” Johnson said. “What didn’t show up on the stats sheet was the tremendous effort he played with. I mean he set the pace that night. He’s a guy that’s hungry and he’s out here fighting. He’s one of those camp guys fighting his butt off to see if something can happen.”

“I just went out and played hard,” King said of his debut in a Saints uniform. “I went out there and played ball like I think I can, and got out there and ran around like I know I can.

“That’s the name of the game: being in there and being productive. If you’re not making plays and being productive, you’re not going to make the team.”

Being a smaller tackle might be a disadvantage for some players, but King, who was credited with two tackles Saturday night against Houston, doesn’t mind because he can use his speed and quickness to get the job done when called on.

“I’m smart and I try to do what I can, and just learn and absorb as much as I can,” he said. “I’m not taking anything away from anybody else; I’m just here to prove that I can play and how I can play.”