Tom Johnson working way through tough preseason for a spot on Saints’ defensive line

Tom Johnson entered Saints training camp aiming to compete for a starting spot in Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 defense.

Problem was, a groin injury hampered his summertime opportunities. Johnson missed valuable practice time while undrafted rookie Glenn Foster, free agent acquisition Jay Richardson and others battled for spots on the depth chart. Johnson also missed the preseason opener against Kansas City before returning for last Friday’s preseason game against Oakland.

Not the start to 2013 that Johnson wanted entering Sunday’s third preseason game at Houston.

Instead of reaching his early-season goals and unseating right end Cameron Jordan, a former No. 1 draft pick who led the defense last season in sacks (eight), or left end Akiem Hicks, a second-year pro whose versatility and size allows him to play end or nose tackle, Johnson is trying to get back in shape, which has been a challenge — try to return too soon from a groin injury and risk shortening your regular season, or take too long to get back and risk giving up the roster spot you earned in 2011 as an undrafted free agent.

“I’m rusty man,” he said of his performance against the Raiders, in which he did not record a tackle. “Been out for like two weeks. Getting back to the speed of things.”

Not that Johnson is surprised he’s things didn’t come easy. He’s accustomed to it. Since departing the Southern Mississippi, his professional career has taken him from NFL Europe and the Arena Football League to the Canadian Football League and finally, the NFL.

Johnson, a native of nearby Moss Point, Miss., offers another speedy option at right defensive end.

Last season, he played in 15 games, finishing with 28 tackles and two sacks. Johnson said during offseason workouts that he was aiming for six sacks and he wanted to at least double his tackles from the season before.

Both are attainable whether he starts or not since the Saints need a platoon of fresh pass rushers to compliment the defense’s new aggressive style.

“Everybody wants to push each other to be the best they can be,” he said. “Hey, I’m shooting for the stars. If I fall short of that, I most definitely will be a contributor in a large way in the rotation.”

Defensive line coach Bill Johnson doesn’t consider Johnson’s job any different now than it was last season in Steve Spagnuolo 4-3 scheme. First, initiate contact and get upfield. Then read the quarterback.

“I feel a lot less hesitation right now,” Bill Johnson said. “It’s a lot more ‘sick ’em’ and ‘let’s go.’ I feel the buzz.”

So far, so good. The Saints tallied seven sacks against Oakland, including five in the first half.

“We’re all trying to find that perfect setup,” he said. “We’re just trying to feel each other out and be dominant.”