Learning on the run

Saints LB Martez Wilson (95) runs to the ball during training camp practice Monday at the team training facility in Metairie.
Saints LB Martez Wilson (95) runs to the ball during training camp practice Monday at the team training facility in Metairie.

In a short period of time this month, New Orleans Saints rookie linebacker Martez Wilson learned a lot about defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

Wilson, the first of two third-round draft picks for the Saints this spring, didn’t really get to know his new defensive boss for more than three months because of the owners’ lockout of players.

So there was a lot of catching up to do for Williams, who likes to ride rookies mercilessly. When Wilson signed his contract on the third day of training camp and walked onto the practice field for the first time, he was officially indoctrinated.

Wilson became Williams’ pet project, much as free safety Malcolm Jenkins was in 2009 and Patrick Robinson was a year ago. But Wilson also learned something about Williams as well.

“I was told that if he’s not on you he doesn’t like you,” a smiling Wilson said. “The veterans told me that if he says something to you that means he likes you. I think he expects me to do well and use my athleticism.”

Athleticism was one of the things the Saints scouts noticed about the former University of Illinois standout, who packs 252 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. Case in point was his 40-yard dash time of 4.49 seconds, which was the fastest of all linebackers at the NFL combine workouts in February.

However, injuries and inconsistency during his college career, which was spent under the watchful eye of former Saints defensive coordinator and Illini coach Ron Zook, conspired to lower Wilson’s draft stock.

Still, the Saints decided to take a shot on Wilson.

One of the reasons was that his size was comparable to former Saints strongside linebacker Scott Fujita, who was missed last year after he left to sign a huge contract with the Cleveland Browns.

The Saints think Wilson has the same skills and ball instincts as Fujita, but he has to learn the position because he played middle linebacker at Illinois. Because of that, he and Williams know it’s going to be a process.

“Each and every day, I’m trying and I’m getting better,” Wilson said.

“We, as coaches, try to put as much external stress on them as possible so the game is simple,” Williams said. “If he can block me out, if he can block out the stress of somebody constantly riding him, on game day he’ll play pretty good.

“I’d rather him be uncomfortable in practice,” he said, “so I’m not uncomfortable on game day.”

Wilson has seen extensive playing time with the second-team defense behind five-year veteran Will Herring and has recorded 10 tackles in three preseason games, including five on Aug. 20 at Houston.

“Each preseason game is more than just a learning experience for me,” Wilson said. “It’s a chance to build more confidence for the coaches to have in you and respect from your teammates as well.”

The transition from the middle to the strong side has been tough considering Williams and linebackers coach Joe Vitt, who may be the most animated and excitable coaches on Sean Payton’s staff, are watching his every move.

“The biggest thing is now I’m near the line of scrimmage on almost every play in certain defenses, so I have to learn how to use my hands even more forcefully and more aggressively, and other things like that,” Wilson said. “Sometimes you’re man to man with the tight end, sometimes you have a big tackle fan out on you.

“So it’s a matter of using your power and your strength as fast and as aggressively as possible,” he said. “That’s been the biggest adjustment for me. As camp has gone along, I’ve gotten better at it, and I just have to keep improving. I’m learning how to do things better, and that’s what the coaches expect of me.”

About two weeks into camp is when most rookies’ heads usually start spinning, which is precisely how it felt one day to Wilson.

“It kind of got me one day,” he said with a laugh. “Some of the older guys, some of the vets, talked to me and told me to calm down and I would have a better day the next day.

“I’ve learned to try and slow everything down and learn one thing every day,” Wilson said. “You can’t learn everything at once like I was trying to do. You want to be so good so early as a rookie that you put a lot on yourself, and you just have to learn not do that.”

When asked about playing for both Zook and Williams and their levels of intensity, Wilson couldn’t help but grin.

“Coach Zook had his moments, but he ain’t Gregg Williams,” Wilson said. “Gregg Williams is a whole new ballgame. Defensive players need a coach like that because defensive players are supposed to be aggressive.

“If your defensive coordinator is aggressive and he expects that in practice all the time, you’re going to definitely do it in a game.”