By Alex Restrepo
LSU Sports Information
METAIRIE, La. -- Former LSU linebacker E.J. Kuale has always dreamed of one day playing on Sundays in the National Football League. However, the Daytona Beach native received a rude awakening to the demands of playing at the next level.
Kuale endured his first NFL experience this past weekend at the New Orleans Saints rookie mini-camp, which consisted of two practices Saturday and Sunday and an additional practice Monday at the team’s practice facility in Metairie, La.
Kuale said the intense pressure placed on rookies by coaches can make or break a player aspiring to establish a career in the NFL.
“It has been a real learning process,” he said. “You have to learn on the fly. Coaches don’t take as much time with you as they did in college.
“When you do have time off you have to be in your playbook. In college you had more time to settle down and get your school work done, but now it’s just business. In the NFL you have to show them you know what you are doing right then and there or you might not be on the team the next day.”
New Orleans Saints linebackers coach Joe Vitt, a 26-year NFL coaching veteran who is one of the most respected defensive minds in the NFL, said he understands what Kuale means by having to learn on the fly.
“The speed of the game is different,” Vitt said. “The players in the NFL are bigger, faster and are world class athletes. These guys coming into camp were the best athletes on the field in college, now they have to get use to being just another guy.”
To make it clear to the rookies and tryouts that nothing is guaranteed, first-year head coach Sean Payton has followed the practice of his former boss Bill Parcells in Dallas during the rookie mini-camp as all players have a piece of tape with their last name on the front of their helmets and no fleur-de-lis decals on the sides of the helmets.
“We'd just assume put a nice piece of tape on their helmet and their name on their back so we know who they are,” Payton said. “We'll figure out the fleur-de-lis when they get closer to making the team, maybe not just on the team. I think we've got to use them in the preseason though, so, we'll see.”
Vitt said Kuale first caught his eye at LSU’s pro day last March. After spending time evaluating Kuale in drills and on tape Vitt said what really convinced him was his conversations with LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini.
“Coach Bo had high recommendations on Kuale,” he said. “I have known Bo for a very long time and have a lot of trust in his opinion. We really like his (Kuale) athleticism and courage. Obviously he was coached and played in a good defense. So far he has proven he definatly has a shot.”
The rookie mini-camp could not have come sooner for Kuale, who has been waiting for a chance to prove himself after being passed on in the NFL Draft in April.
Kuale said missing the first six weeks of his senior season with a broken ankle hurt his draft status.
“It was a big disappointment not being drafted,” he said. “I feel that my injury really stuck out with teams. But everything happens for a reason and you have to move forward.
“I am not even thinking about my injury right now because I am 100 percent and I have a chance to make the team. That’s all I ask for because I am a hard worker and I am going to give it my all.”
Even with the disappointment of not being drafted, Kuale said it only provides him with more motivation to compete.
“It’s a whole lot of motivation,” he said. “Sitting there watching the NFL Draft knowing I could play at the next level and none of the teams took that chance. Now that the Saints took that chance I want to prove to those teams that didn’t pick me what they missed out on.”
Saints’ defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs knows what LSU players can bring to the table. He was LSU’s defensive coordinator in 2002 and coached All-Southeastern Conference linebacker Bradie James. After the season, Gibbs left LSU to go to the Dallas Cowboys who drafted James in the fourth round that year.
From what he saw during the rookie min-camp, Gibbs believes Kuale has a chance to succeed in the NFL like James has.
“James is a much bigger guy and the scheme in Dallas is a little different,” he said. “Kuale is smaller, but he has potential to get to that skill level with how hard he works and his good instincts.”
Kuale said he was happy to stay in Louisiana and help a team that is still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
This past season, Hurricane Katrina forced the Saints to move to San Antonio and play four games in Baton Rouge. The Tigers also had to reschedule their first three games.
With what he experienced last year, Kuale said he understands what the Saints are going through.
“Something that tragic provides a lot of motivation,” he said. “When your state is down like that you want perform well so the fans can take their minds off their troubles with the hurricanes.
“It has humbled me because the Saints are just coming back to their home. I am new in the city so I am basically a guest in their home. I just want to do whatever I can to help the city and the team be productive.”
Kuale will have more opportunities to prove himself at the next Saints mini-camp June 2-4 and the training camp will take place in late July.
Payton said he is eager to see Kuale on the field working with the entire team.
“I think he understands what it takes probably to make and NFL roster,” Payton said. “He is one of those guys who once you get into the pads and into training camp you begin to see how they do not only on defense but on special teams and you get a better idea. We are glad he is here and we are glad he is someone that we signed.”
Even after receiving praises from coaches, Kuale still feels he has something to prove.
“LSU and the fans in Louisiana know what those teams passed up on,” he said. “I am very grateful for the Saints. I am going to do whatever I can to make this team whether that is on defense or even special teams. I am not going to hold anything back and leave everything out on the field.”