Small-school players find niches with No. 1-seeded Saints

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Craig Robertson
Craig Robertson (#52) has played keys roles as a linebacker and special teams contributor for the New Orleans Saints (Photo: Parker Waters).

NEW ORLEANS – Wil Lutz has had a record-breaking season as the New Orleans Saints place-kicker.

David Onyemata is the only Saint to have a three-sack game this season.

Craig Robertson twice has foiled faked kicks that were pivotal plays in pivotal victories.

Jermon Bushrod has been a valuable backup on the offensive line, starting five games at left tackle and also playing guard.

Dan Arnold switched from wide receiver to tight end in training camp, made the roster and has become a contributor at his new position.

Each of these players took a road less traveled to the NFL, none having played at a school from a Power 5 conference. In fact, only Robertson played at an FBS program (North Texas).

Nonetheless each found a niche on a team that is the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs after finishing 13-3 despite a 30-7 loss to Carolina on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“There’s probably a little bit more uncertainty with players that don’t come from some of these Power 5 conference teams,” Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said.

But these players and others overcame that uncertainty.

Onyemata, a native of Nigeria who never played football until he arrived at the University of Manitoba, is an extreme example.

Bill Johnson was New Orleans’ defensive line coach when he went to Manitoba to scout Onyemata before the Saints drafted him in the third round of the 2016 draft.

“He just fell in love with the kid,” Allen said. “The number one thing you’ve got to identify is, does the player have the skill set to do the things that you’re going to ask him to do, which David obviously did, and then the one thing that we realized in spending time with him is he actually is a very quick learner. He just had to see it once or twice and then he had it.”

 

Players who attract the attention of Power 5 schools might have dozens of scholarship offers. Onyemata’s application letter to Manitoba was his first communication with a college and when it elicited a positive response in less than a week he was sold.

 

Football at Manitoba was not considered a training ground for the NFL, but merely an extracurricular activity.

“The only coaches at our school that were paid were the head coach and the assistant head coach,” Onyemata said. “Everyone else was a volunteer. They had other things to do. They would go to their work and then after work they would come down to practice. They were just doing it for a good cause.”

No player from Manitoba had ever been drafted, though defensive end Israel Idonije found a job as an undrafted free agent and wound up playing 11 seasons with the Chicago Bears.

The Saints signed Arnold as an undrafted free agent from Wisconsin-Platteville in 2017.

“I definitely think there’s a stigma where it’s, “OK, can this kid actually play with the big boys or is it something where he just had success against not as athletic people?”” Arnold said. “You have to overcome that in the coaches’ eyes and I think you have to work a little harder.”

Bushrod excelled enough at little Towson State that the Saints used a fourth-round draft choice on him in 2007 even though he wasn’t invited to the Combine.

“It was definitely an adjustment when I got here,” Bushrod said. “It’s not like playing your I-A competition. (The Saints) developed me. They gave me an opportunity to get stronger, work on my technique, work on my body, things like that. It was definitely an adjustment. Then every year it’s just a grind to stay in it.”

Bushrod stayed with the Saints six seasons, spent three in Chicago and two in Miami before returning to New Orleans this season.

Robertson said the uneven playing field levels out for small-school players once they make an NFL roster.

“You only get one opportunity when you’re a small-school guy because they look at some of these bigger-school guys like they’ve been playing against quote unquote NFL competition for a while,” Robertson said. “(But) after you’re in the league it’s just who you are.”

Lutz said it’s really just who you are for kickers all along because they don’t have to transition to competing with bigger, stronger, faster opponents.

“It’s solely your performance,” he said. “The only thing that changes is the hashes are skinnier in the NFL.”

However, Lutz, who played at Georgia State, said there’s one other intangible factor.

“If you’re looking at two even guys and you’ve got a guy who has played in front of 90,000 fans every Saturday and you’ve got a guy who’s played in front of 1,000 every Saturday, obviously you’re going to suspect the other guy has got a little stronger mental side,” he said. “I didn’t get to play in front of big crowds so that was probably the only thing that was shell shocking when I got here.”

Onyemata said “sometimes it’s surreal” to ponder how far he has come. But, he added, “Sometimes I wonder if I hadn’t gone to the University of Manitoba and picked somewhere else, would this be happening right now?”

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Les East

Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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