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pakowitz 05-05-2003 01:18 AM

Venturi likes his 'quicker, faster' defense

Saints will be among NFL's youngest defenses this season

Sunday May 04, 2003

By Jeff Duncan
Staff writer

Rick Venturi is looking for a few good closers.

As the Saints defensive coordinator scans the practice field during workouts at minicamp this weekend, he's looking for players that can run and pursue, athletes that can react and accelerate.

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In other words, he wants defenders that can turn those Mike Vick 30-yard touchdown streaks into only 7-yard gains.

So far, he likes what he sees.

"We need guys that can close the field quickly," Venturi said Saturday after the second day of mini-camp. "The field is going to open and close, and the quarterbacks can move with an open field. You have to be able to come off the ball, react and close it.

"Were quicker, faster," Venturi said. "I like the makeup of our team. I'm confident we can do this. Now they've got to prove me right."

Unfortunately, there's one caveat to all that speed, athleticism and closing ability: It comes with inexperience.

The Saints' defense will be among the youngest in the NFL this fall. The average age of the projected 11 starters is 25.6 years. Eight starters are 26 or younger and have less than four years of experience. Four are rookies or second-year players.

The 49ers underwent a similar defensive makeover in 2001. That season, San Francisco started six rookies or second-year players on defense, and were ranked 13th in total defense. They finished 12-4 and made the playoffs.

"We're relatively young everywhere," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "We're also a lot faster than we've been. We're going to have to modify the defense a little bit to make sure they are on the same page, because they haven't played a lot of football."

Three of the four projected new starters are players from the heralded draft class of 2002. Defensive end Charles Grant, a first-round pick from Georgia, linebacker James Allen, a third-round pick from Oregon State, and safety Mel Mitchell, a fourth-round pick from Western Kentucky. The trio they will replace -- Willie Whitehead, Darrin Smith and Jay Bellamy -- had 23 years of combined experience.

"I feel much more comfortable than last year," Mitchell said. "Everything is clicking a lot better. I know the defense a lot better. This is something I've been waiting on. I learned a lot playing behind Sammy (Knight) and Jay (Bellamy) last year. Now that the opportunity is here, I'm trying to take full advantage of it."

"We're younger, but that doesn't necessarily mean we're going to have a big dropoff," third-year defensive tackle Kenny Smith said. "Whether you are young or not, you've still got to get the job done. We've got a lot of great athletes up front."

Indeed, rookie defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan was recruited by Georgia as a linebacker. Charles Grant came to Georgia as a running back. Safety Tebucky Jones played running back at Syracuse and was a standout high school basketball player. Allen and defensive end Darren Howard also were standout basketball players in high school. At Ohio State, rookie linebacker Cie Grant played four positions, including cornerback.

"We're faster and more athletic," Haslett said. "We've got better athletes, big, strong guys that can run. We're just going to be young."

To expedite the learning curve, Haslett said the defense will be simplified at first. The staff will reduce the number of coverages, personnel packages and alignments they use each week. Also, Haslett will look to thirtysomething cornerbacks Dale Carter and Ashley Ambrose and young veterans such as Orlando Ruff, 26, and Tebucky Jones, 28, for leadership.

"I am a leader, a born leader," Jones said. "That's what I hope they brought me here for. We have a young defense, so we aren't going to throw a lot of stuff at them to confuse them. This team has a lot of speed. Speed kills. As long as you're in the right position."

Venturi, however, said the Saints will not use inexperience as a crutch.

The Saints had opportunities to re-sign veteran defenders Charlie Clemons and Knight and opted for younger replacements. They replaced veteran Norman Hand at nose tackle with Sullivan, then traded Hand to Seattle the next day.

"The objective was not to get younger," Venturi said. "The objective was to get faster without compromising strength.

"I want to make one thing perfectly clear: Inexperience is no excuse. We've chosen to go a direction. As Travis Tritt said, here's a quarter, call somebody who cares."

oh yea.... im ready fo the season, just reading this article makes me want to see our new young fast Defense

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