Saints rookie Tim Lelito faces pressures, pains of first NFL start

Associated Press photo by WILFREDO LEE -- Tim Lelito started two games at right guard as a rookie for the Saints last season. He could get a look at the first-string center job if Brian de la Puente does not return, coach Sean Payton said.
Associated Press photo by WILFREDO LEE -- Tim Lelito started two games at right guard as a rookie for the Saints last season. He could get a look at the first-string center job if Brian de la Puente does not return, coach Sean Payton said.

With butterflies floating around in his stomach for much of Sunday morning, the last thing New Orleans Saints rookie guard Tim Lelito needed was to get hurt on the second play from scrimmage against the Arizona Cardinals.

It was difficult enough trying to fill in for four-time All-Pro guard Jahri Evans when Lelito, an undrafted free agent, had to try and settle his nerves while dealing with a charley horse he got on the Saints’ second snap.

“Well, yeah … I was definitely nervous to be sure,” Lelito said of starting for Evans, who had a hamstring injury that snapped a streak of 122 consecutive starts.

Then again, the malady may have helped take Lelito’s mind off the huge task he had in replacing Evans for what turned out to be a blowout of the Cardinals.

This was no time to be hobbling to the sideline with the Saints having no other guard available, even though Evans suited up for the game.

So Lelito, who played his college football at Division II Grand Valley State in Michigan, showed the toughness and determination that helped him win a job with the Saints this summer and went about his business for the rest of the day.

It certainly made his first start more memorable than it might have been considering he was on the field for all 74 offensive plays at right guard and five special teams plays as well.

While he took the blame for “three or four” of the four sacks the Cardinals had against Drew Brees, Lelito did everything he could do in the eyes of right tackle Zach Strief.

“I remember my first start ... and the mindset that goes with it,” said Strief, who was inactive for his first seven games as a rookie in 2006 before being thrust into the lineup because of an injury. “Yet he walks into a game and tweaks a muscle in his leg immediately, but battles and battles and battles.”

To make matters worse, Strief said, the Cardinals used a five-man front that was designed to isolate the offensive linemen one-on-one and make it harder to run the ball.

“Tim battled the whole game, and that’s all you want,” Strief said. “At the end of the day, he played well enough for us to score 31 points and help us get a big win.”

Lelito lined up most of the game against defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, a three-time Pro Bowl pick who recorded three of the Cardinals’ four sacks.

Lelito, who got some valuable first-team snaps in the exhibition season, actually didn’t know that he was going to get the opportunity until after Saturday’s walkthrough, despite getting all the first-team practice reps last week.

“I had a feeling it would happen,” Lelito said. “I got all the reps, and Jahri was nursing his leg a little bit and doing a lot of rehab stuff. He and I had talked through the week, and he told me he would keep me posted.”

He found out for sure when offensive line coach Bret Ingalls gave him the word after the walkthrough, which was just fine with Lelito.

His grandparents, who raised him in Michigan, were flying down for the game, and he didn’t want to tell them earlier that he might be starting.

“If I had told them earlier that (starting) was a possibility, they would have freaked out and been calling me all week,” Lelito said. “They would’ve been asking after every practice, like, ‘How did you do today?’”

Lelito also didn’t talk to his high school coach, whom he regularly talks to, for fear that he and others would be calling him all week.

“I figured they would find out when they watched the game on TV,” Lelito said with a smile.

Aside from a few hiccups on the sacks, Lelito said he had fun Sunday. But he knows he has a lot of work to do to improve in case Evans needs more recovery time and isn’t ready for Monday night’s game with the Miami Dolphins in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“There’s a lot to correct and a lot to work on,” Lelito said. “I feel I did OK in some parts, but there’s definitely deficiencies in other places. It didn’t help that I got a charley horse and was dealing with that the whole game, but that’s no excuse.”

“There’s some things he did well, and there’s some things to work on,” Evans said. “But to go out and line up against a guy like Dockett, who has been to a few Pro Bowls, was a big test for him, and Tim won more than he lost.”