Glenn Guilbeau / GANNETT LOUISIANA
METAIRIE – Apparently, LSU fans never forget.
It has been nearly 16 years since a Georgia wide receiver named Champ Bailey riddled the Tigers’ secondary to the tune of seven receptions for 114 yards and a 17-yard touchdown in a 28-27 victory on Oct. 3, 1998, in Tiger Stadium. Both teams were 3-0 overall and 1-0 in the Southeastern Conference. LSU was No. 6 in the nation and apparently on its way to a fourth straight winning season and fourth straight bowl under Coach Gerry DiNardo. Georgia was No. 12 under Coach Jim Donnan, who was coming off a 10-2 season.
The Bulldogs gained 463 yards in all as quarterback Quincy Carter completed 27 of 34 passes for 318 yards and two touchdowns.
“We kicked that (expletive deleted), ha, ha, ha,” Bailey, a newly signed free agent for the Saints, said after a mini-camp practice this week. “No, I just remember playing a lot. I remember catching a few passes. Quincy was clicking that night. That was like his coming out party.”
But so was Bailey, who was the nation’s premier all-around player in 1998. He would be named an All-American and would win the Bronko Nagurski award as the nation’s best defensive player. He also played cornerback, made two tackles against LSU and returned three kickoffs for 66 yards.
The Bulldogs went on to a 9-3 season, 6-2 in the SEC with a Peach Bowl victory over Virginia. LSU finished 4-7 and 2-6.
“That game definitely sticks out around here because I’ve been reminded about it a few times,” Bailey said. “Fans all over town here come up to me and say, ‘Yeah, ’98, I remember you at LSU.’ I swear just the other day somebody brought that up. I’ve heard about it four or five times.”
Bailey is not back in Louisiana for offense, though. A 15-year NFL veteran with time in Washington and Denver, his 12 Pro Bowl appearances are the most for a cornerback in history. He is expected to start at cornerback, though he can also play safety. His first assignment will be to help the Saints get more turnovers, which was the defense’s only glaring weakness last season as its total of 19 takeaways was 29th in the 32-team NFL.
“I think you can do great things without forcing turnovers, but it won’t help you win the big game,” said Bailey, who played in the Super Bowl last season with Denver before signing a two-year contract with New Orleans for $7 million.
The Saints finished fourth in the NFL last season in fewest yards allowed a game with 305.7 under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in his first year in New Orleans.
“I know we had a top five defense last year here, but turnovers weren’t there,” Bailey said. “That’s something we’ve been talking about all off-season. We want to definitely improve on that.”
Bailey has 52 interceptions in his career and nine forced fumbles. He finished tied for first in the NFL in interceptions in 2005 with 10. Denver had 26 takeaways in 2013.
“Getting turnovers is about everything clicking from pass rush to guys staying in the right place and anticipation,” he said. “So many things. Another thing is believing what you see. A lot of guys see it coming, but they don’t believe it. They don’t pull the trigger to go make the play.”
It will be Bailey’s job to teach the Saints’ youthful secondary.
“With someone like Champ and knowing the skill set he has in regards to leadership and the level of respect for what he’s accomplished, his leadership might come as a calming influence for the younger players,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Wednesday.
“I think the more comfortable we get this defense, it’s going to help create some turnovers,” Bailey said. “You’ve got to know when to take risks. It’s not as risky if you know what you’re looking at, and you definitely believe it. You minimize those risks when you know what’s coming at you.”
Bailey knows. He has seen just about everything entering season No. 16.
“I am learning a lot of new stuff, but there isn’t one thing that I haven’t seen before,” he said. “It’s just getting to know it all over again. It is what it is. I think all these guys wish to be the old man one day.”
Bailey, a native of Folkston, Ga., has also noticed something about New Orleans he did not realize.
“I’ve been here before, but I hadn’t spent more than a weekend,” he said. “It’s hotter than I thought. It’s more southern than I thought. I grew up in the South, but this is the South. The food – everything’s fried. You can have all the seafood you want. It’s great, though. I love it.”
CROWD NOISE IN JUNE?: The Saints may have solved their road game hex last season with the playoff win at Philadelphia, but Coach Sean Payton wants to make sure his team continues to win away from the Superdome. The team was 3- 5 away from the dome last season in the regular season and 1-1 in the playoffs with a loss at eventual Super Bowl champ Seattle.
During this mini-camp, the Saints have been practicing amid piped in crowd noise.
“This would be the first time we have done it in mini-camp,” Payton said Wednesday. “It really is the reality of the game, whether it’s the defense at home or the offense on the road. It changes a lot of the dynamics in communication. We wanted to implement it here.”
The Saints’ third and last mini-camp session will be Thursday morning.