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New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas is healthy, ready to take place as NFL starter

The New Orleans Saints under head coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis, have done well using the NFL draft to fill needs. However, they also have had a knack for finding undrafted rookie gems.

Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Lynell Hamilton have been good pick ups at the running back spot as undrafted free agent. And then there's linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who played collegiate ball at Wisconsin under head coach Barry Alvarez before current coach Bret Bielema took over prior to his sophomore season.

Jonathan was a versatile college player who flashed skills allowing him to play a number of spots after coming to Madison in 2005 in the same signing class as fellow NFL players P.J. Hill, Travis Beckum and Garrett Graham. “I was a 3-star recruit. I was being recruited by Wisconsin, Illinois, UConn and Kentucky,” he explained. “I was being recruited as a running back, wide receiver, safety and linebacker.”  The spot where he felt most comfortable and where the Badgers afforded him the opportunity to shine was linebacker.

Casillas excelled on a very good Wisconsin defense, leading the unit in tackles with 96 stops in 2007. He experienced a setback during his senior campaign in 2008 that played a role in him dropping in the eyes of NFL scouts. “I tore my meniscus in my left knee and missed two games,” Casillas recalled.  I tried to come back by the 3rd game, but the knee got progressively worse.”

The knee injury was addressed following the season finale against Cal Poly, and Casillas missed the Champs Sports Bowl game against Florida State.

Seven rounds of the 2009 NFL draft passed without Jonathan’s hearing his name called, but he had a few suitors that valued his skills as an undrafted free agent. “It came down to the Saints and the Buccaneers. I looked at the roster, the depth chart and the coaching staff. It came down to where I had a better chance of playing. I made the right decision,” he said with a smile. The Saints went onto to capture the Super Bowl in his rookie season.

Most of his experiences in 2009 came on special teams, but on December 27 in the second to last game of the 2009 season, he was inserted into the starting lineup to replace an injured Scott Shanle. Cassilas passed his debut test with flying colors, recording 10 tackles against Tampa Bay.

Casillas then earned a spot in the starting rotation for the 2010 preseason at wekaside linebacker alongside starters Jonathan Vilma and the aforementioned Shanle. Once again the injury bug bit when he tore ligaments in his left foot during the preseason finale against Tennessee. The medical term is a Lisfranc foot injury that required two screws inserted into his foot; one has already been removed. The process put him on the shelf for the remainder of the 2010 season. It was a year of growing and becoming wiser on the sidelines. “I took a step back. It made me grow more as a football player,” he noted. “I watched and learned. I wasn’t the only one hurt. I watched other (veterans) handle injuries. I tried to see how the guys would bounce back, how I can make myself be a better player and contributor.”

Jonathan was joined throughout the rehabbing process by teammates helping one another. “I was on I.R. with P.J. Hill and Lynell Hamilton, real supportive guys. It was good to have a bunch of guys (working) to do the same thing, win another Super Bowl, by your side.”

The New Orleans Saints boast one of the elite defenses in the NFL under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ guidance. There is no cookie-cutter mold in the defensive mastermind’s schemes. Williams makes adjustments for personnel and game situations. It can be challenging at times for the players.

“Gregg has a defensive approach that can involve a lot of players. You just have to be versatile (as a player) and comprehend defenses and schemes. He makes it fun, electrifying. You know that the defense will be good. Guys make plays, you get excited.” Casillas continued. “I’m 225 pounds, but we have 250 pound linebackers that are doing similar things. It’s not always skill sets or body types. (Williams) can deviate. He incorporates difference sets, sometimes bigger cornerbacks and smaller linebackers, sometimes smaller corners and bigger linebackers.”

The Saints scouting department leaves no stone unturned when it comes to evaluating talent. Rick Reprish, the Saints director of college scouting along with Payton, Loomis and the entire coaching staff and scouting department go the extra step. It’s not just talent alone that plays into the equation. “They will ask current players about potential Saints additions as they are in the locker-room and away from the field,” Jonathan elaborated. “They want to know when you are not in front of the camera or behind the scenes.

The Black and Gold seem to have hit the bonanza in the 2011 NFL draft with the selection of 1st rounders Cameron Jordan, a defensive end from California, and Mark Ingram, the former Heisman winning running back from Alabama. The two intriguing players have a world of potential that could allow them to become immediate impact players. Both still have a lot to prove that they are worthy of all the hype.

Payton proclaimed immediately following the draft that Jordan would begin his NFL journey at left defensive end, which could move 2010 starter Alex Brown to the bench. “Cam Jordan is going to be good, but if he’s not doing it, he’ll be moved (to another spot). He has to prove that he can play on this defense,” Casillas said. “Playing on a Gregg Williams’ defense, you have to know what you’re doing. You have to mesh with the coaches and players to gain their trust. All rookies have to go through that. Each of our defensive ends has already proven themselves. When you see that a guy earns the job and proves himself, he’ll play.”

As a group, the Saints have been one of the trendsetters this off-season with the lockout. In times such as these, it causes people to be creative. Sure enough, quarterback Drew Brees has organized off-season workouts at Tulane to keep some type of normalcy, since the Organized Team Activities (OTAs) would be ongoing in any other normal season. A veteran team like New Orleans has a distinct advantage.

“Drew set up the off-season thing up. We already have the recipe to win,” Casillas said. “Drew shows that he can be a leader (which he is). We’re missing OTA’s, the teaching, and the critical issues. Going all the way to August without teaching and structured practice, that’s a long time. That takes away the learning curve and conditioning from a lot of guys that would experience that. You can’t just have a few guys working out; you’ve got to have all the guys. Conditioning, running and watching film, we’re supplementing. Some guys do position specific stuff. Its how much push you get from being with your teammates. It’s camaraderie.”

Besides veteran leadership, the Saints front office has built a team with a strong character base. Younger players, like Casillas, have a wealth of experience to draw from teammates both on- and off-the-field. “We have a great locker-room,” Jonathan emphasized. “They let guys know that this is a party city. You’ll be on Bourbon Street at one time or another; you've got to be a grown man. I’ve done a lot better making decisions, not being in the wrong place. Being a man, knowing where those places are and not going there.”

Following a season of game inactivity, Jonathan is ready to raise his game to the next level, to take on all challengers and reclaim his starting spot. “I’m more intelligent now. I’ve been watching veteran linebacker’s all around the league, smarter players, being in the right place, learning things off the field, taking care of your body, being with the right people.”

The lockout has been trying on the fans and the players as well. Casillas is ready to display his skills and discover just how far he has come since last season’s injury short circuited his golden opportunity. “All aspects of my game have improved from athleticism, intelligence and getting to the (right) spot," explained Casillas.  I’m more intense, more of a complete player as a special teamer, run defender and pass defender. I know a lot more now even though I was a starter in 2010.”

Jonathan Casillas is ready and so are the fans. Let the games, er, practices begin. There may be another overlooked jewel like Jonathan Casillas among the undrafted free agents yet to be discovered, if there's time to do so.


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