Saints’ Hawthorne, Chamberlain face new challenge

David Hawthorne from Seattle. Chris Chamberlain from St. Louis. They arrived in New Orleans a year ago with different agendas from what they face at Saints training camp this season.

Back then, they were potential starting linebackers in Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 defense. Injuries changed those plans.

Hawthorne strained a hamstring three weeks into the regular season. He missed the next five games. By the time he returned, it was too late for him to feel comfortable on the field.

Chamberlain’s situation was worse. When he tore the his left ACL and meniscus during the third preseason game against Jacksonville, his season was over.

Soon, it was over for the Saints, who ended 2012 with one of the worst defensive efforts in NFL history. Spagnuolo was fired, leaving Hawthorne and Chamberlain without the coach who was instrumental in persuading them to join the Saints.

“Coming in with Spags, mentally, I knew the system,” Chamberlain said. “Physically, I felt great. I was excited about helping this team win and bringing my skill set, my knowledge of the team and being able to help other guys. Unfortunately, I went down in the preseason and never got that opportunity. And then to have to watch some of the things that happened, it was just a tough deal.”

Fast-forward to this week, when both linebackers are making the switch to Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense. Both are playing behind inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Vilma.

They’re competing for roster spots against each other as well as seven-year pro Will Herring and Ramon Humber, who is in his fifth season. Both have looked sharp at training camp.

“It doesn’t matter who the coordinator is,” Ryan said. “I think these guys are learning our defense, they’re staying up with everything mentally, they’re buying in, they work hard and they’re good football players.”

In 11 games (10 starts) last season, Hawthorne had 38 tackles. A season earlier, he led Seattle with 115 tackles — his third consecutive 100-plus tackle campaign. He also had two sacks and three interceptions, one returned for a touchdown.

Hawthorne believes he still can be a starter in the NFL.

“I’m still the same person,” said the 28-year-old, who picked up the nickname “Heat” during his four seasons in Seattle. “Every time I suit it up, I’m aiming to be the guy out there. I’m just that kind of competitor.”

Same with Chamberlain.

“I’ve played at a high level in this league. I’ve been a starter,” he said. “I know I can be a dominant player. I know I have a lot of value. It’s just a matter of being 100 percent and being able to do it.”

Chamberlain, a 27-year-old who also is in his sixth season in the league, is still slowed by the left knee, which he iced after Wednesday morning’s practice. His best season in St. Louis was in 2011, when he had 81 tackles and two sacks in 13 starts.

“I know they’re not going to wait around forever for me,” he said. “At the same time, I know I have to push it as hard as I can and, at the same time, be smart. It’s those balances you have to find.”