Saints’ Kenny Vaccaro ‘brings it’ in practice, on the field

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New Orleans Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro, right, slams into Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Devon Wylie on a punt return during the second quarter of their preseason game Friday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New Orleans Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro, right, slams into Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Devon Wylie on a punt return during the second quarter of their preseason game Friday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“He’s not intimidated by anyone. He’s smart and tough. This guy is cut from the same cloth as (former New England safety) Rodney Harrison.” Rob Ryan, Saints defensive coordinator on Kenny Vaccaro

New Orleans Saints rookie safety Kenny “Hit Man’’ Vaccaro has a confession to make.

“I’ve never really been hit hard,’’ the team’s heavily tattooed No. 1 draft pick said after Sunday’s indoor practice. “I’ve knocked myself out, but I’ve never been hit that hard.’’

Come again.

“Yeah, I’ve knocked myself out, but I’ve never been hit that hard.’’

Vaccaro did not elaborate on the “remember me’’ hit, so it’s not certain whether the 22-year-old pride of Brownwood, Texas, ran head-on into a brick wall or an opposing running back. Either way, the chances are good that both would have come tumbling down after the collision.

It’s become clear in training camp that Vaccaro is no one-hit wonder, because the hits keep on coming, day after day after day in training camp.

It’s all about establishing a physical presence; first in practice, where he has ruffled the feathers of several veterans with his aggressive style of play, and in a game when it counts most like Friday night when he led the Saints in tackles with six against the Kansas City Chiefs.

“He’s just got that ‘it’ factor,’’ Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “He lays his body on the line. If he continues to develop the way he is, I think he’s going to be a great player. I use that word ‘great’ purposely. His talent is apparent. It jumps off the tape immediately.’’

Vaccaro refers to “it’’ as “my edge.’’

“I’m not dirty,’’ he said. “I abide by the rules. I’ve had maybe one flag my whole life. Guys want to see that ‘edge’ from me in the game, and I thought I was pretty physical (against Kansas City). Some guys do it in practice, but some guys can’t bring it to the field. I want to back up the way I practice and put that on tape on Sundays.’’

Or any other day of the week when he steps between the lines.

“I just love football,’’ Vaccaro said. “I’m real passionate about it; practice, meetings, everything related to football. I mean real passionate, to the point where I just cry. I’ve been that way my whole life.’’

Vaccaro currently is running with the second defensive unit, behind veteran strong safety Roman Harper. But Saints first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan also plans to play Vaccaro in nickel and dime pass coverages against slot receivers to use his size (6-feet, 215 pounds), strength, speed and cover skills.

And don’t be surprised if Ryan dials up a blitz or two for Vaccaro, the 15th overall pick, who has been dubbed the “Tasmanian Devil’’ by teammate/cornerback Keenan Lewis.

“We love him, and I know the fans in New Orleans are going to absolutely love him, too,’’ Ryan said. “He’s not intimidated by anyone. He’s smart and tough. This guy is cut from the same cloth as (former New England safety) Rodney Harrison.’’

In a short period of time, Vaccaro has won the respect of his coaches and teammates, some more begrudgingly than others. He’s had run-ins on the practice field with tight end Jimmy Graham and Pierre Thomas, who took exception to his aggressive play and have since come to embrace it.

“He’s definitely making himself known around here,’’ Saints four-time Pro Bowl right guard Jahri Evans said with a chuckle. “He brings it every play. He comes hard and fast and shows no remorse and doesn’t shy away from contact, that’s for sure. And that’s a good thing, because it only makes us better. Yeah, he throws his body around here in practice, but he’s taking it into the games, too.’’

Veteran inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said Vaccaro’s style of play helps motivate others.

“It’s infectious,’’ Lofton said. “He provides a spark. Some older guys feed off of it. Once you see a guy flying around like that, it makes you question how hard you’re going. It makes you bring your tempo up.

“What’s not to like about him? He’s humble. He loves contact, plus he’s a great cover-guy, too. He’s nasty. There’s no compromise. He’s full tilt every single time. He just loves the game of football. You can see it in the way he practices and the way he plays. But we need all 11 guys running around like that. It needs to be a collective effort.’’