METAIRIE, La. – Jonathan Casillas spotted the ball nearly too late Tuesday, the pass from New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees sailing high above tight end Dave Thomas.
But for Casillas, it was nearly too late, not absolutely too late.
The Saints linebacker leaped high into the air, clutching the ball with one hand before coming down hard on his back. He held onto the ball, finishing one of training camp’s most athletic plays.
What that play represented was acting head coach Joe Vitt’s description of Casillas as a linebacker.
“Speed. Quickness. Range. Great space tackler,” Vitt said. “He has good hands. And I think he is really mature where he can pattern read now. He has had a positive growth experience.”
Casillas, when healthy, adds an athletic dimension to a Saints defense in transition. Yet, for the fourth-year professional who came to New Orleans as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, injuries have been his downfall.
He didn’t compete in his final bowl game because he had surgery to repair cartilage and medial collateral ligament damage and that hampered his draft status. He sat out his second NFL season with a preseason Lisfranc foot injury and he missed the ending of the 2011 season with another MCL injury.
And he missed organized team activities this summer with back issues that blossomed from what he said was over working during the offseason.
He’s healthy now and mature enough that he realizes how he must start taking care of himself. He knows he can contribute when healthy.
“I think throughout my career, I think I’ve contributed very well to Gregg Williams’ defense the last three years,” Casillas said. “I think I can be a valuable commodity in this defense under (defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo). I’ve just got to take all the avenues I can to protect my body and keep myself healthy even though I haven’t done the best job yet.
“It has become a priority for me - my number one priority.”
Indeed, in 2011, when he played in 13 games, he finished 57 tackles, ninth-most on the team and his three sacks were fourth-most on the team.
Thus far into camp, he’s playing catch-up because of missing OTAs. He feels like he has come a long way, working his way up from the bottom of the depth chart to being the other linebacker with Curtis Lofton in nickel (five defensive back) situations.
While the Saints appear set at linebacker with Lofton starting at middle, David Hawthorne at weakside and Scott Shanle at strongside, Casillas still sees himself as a starter, though he’s OK with working with whatever group he can.
“Working with the threes, working with the twos, working with the ones, I just see it as an opportunity to get better,” Casillas said. “Any rep I’m out there, I think you’re either getting worse or better.”
As for Casillas’ role in the play of the day Tuesday, here’s his explanation.
“My guy went across so I basically had to look for work,” Casillas said. “By the time I snapped back, the ball was on me fast. It was kind of like an awkward jump, one-handed (catch). Didn’t mean to one-hand it but that’s how it happened.”
Whatever it was, the Saints will take it.