Underwhelming debut not up to Sullivan's standards
Coaches call rookie a ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‹Âœwork in progress'
By Jeff Duncan
Johnathan Sullivan was so nervous before the Saints' exhibition game against Philadelphia on Monday night that Coach Jim Haslett swears he saw the rookie defensive tackle hyperventilating during warmups.
The nervousness was understandable. A player's first game doesn't get much more daunting. National TV. Sellout crowd. Eagles Pro Bowl right guard Jermane Mayberry snorting across the line.
"It was the first time I've ever been nervous before a football game," Sullivan said.
Sullivan's official NFL debut was as underwhelming as the Saints' performance. He wasn't credited with a tackle while playing for most of the first half.
"He got a real indoctrination under fire against a really good team," Saints defensive coordinator Rick Venturi said. "He had his ups and down. He did his good things, and he did his bad things. That's being a rookie."
That's not what Saints fans expected when New Orleans selected him with the No. 6 overall pick in the NFL draft this past April and rewarded him with a seven-year, $21 million contract last month.
"Johnathan didn't play up to what I think his standards are," Haslett said. "He was a rookie who played his first game ever. He slumbered around a little bit, but you can see power, strength and quickness. He is going to be a good player."
Considering his high draft status and big contract, Sullivan has received relatively little fanfare during his first two weeks of camp. The preponderance of newcomers on defense and high-profile offensive stars like Aaron Brooks, Deuce McAllister and Joe Horn have dominated the headlines, allowing him to operate in the background, where he is more comfortable.
Like most rookies, especially those who report late to camp because of contract holdouts, he's behind.
Two weeks of workouts have melted the extra pounds from his thick, 6 feet 3 frame. He weighed 317 pounds Thursday, still about 5 more than he'd like, but six fewer than he weighed when he reported July 30.
"I'm still in the process of working it out," Sullivan said. "Hopefully, I can get back to where I was at Georgia. It's hard to learn what to do and what to watch out for and still try to make plays. But I'm getting there."
Sullivan's transition is aided by the presence of Charles Grant, a longtime friend and former Georgia teammate. In the locker room, Grant dresses a few feet to Sullivan's right in the next stall. On the field, he lines up a few feet to Sullivan's right along the defensive line at right end.
"We're different in that I'm more outgoing and he's laid-back," Grant said. "But he's an all-around good guy, trustworthy and a great guy to hang around with."
Like Grant, Sullivan attended Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia before joining the Bulldogs. Like Grant, Sullivan left college after his junior season to pursue his NFL dream.
And, like Grant, Sullivan owns a mean streak that belies his gentle, quiet personality off the field.
During predraft film study, Haslett watched Sullivan stomp on an opposing SEC lineman who he felt was playing dirty.
"I saw that and said, ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‹ÂœWhoa, I need to look at this guy,' " said Haslett, who has an affinity for aggressive, physical players.
"He's got a wild, aggressive side to him," Grant said of Sullivan. "He's not going to let anyone run over him. He's not going to go out there and pick a fight, but he will be physical when he has to be.
During practice two weeks ago, Sullivan locked horns with veteran offensive tackle Victor Riley in a heated altercation during pass protection drills. Riley became incensed and objected to the rookie holding his jersey after the play. Sullivan did not back down, charging the 6-5, 328-pound Riley and exchanging blows.
"People will try to intimidate you, so you can't back down from anyone," Sullivan said. "If somebody crosses the line or takes it to another level, I can cross the line, too."
After working primarily at nose tackle during spring drills, he's learning the other defensive tackle position, called the "three technique" tackle. Saints coaches believe his quick feet and hands and penetration skills make him a natural for the position.
"He's a work in progress," Venturi said. "The competition here is another level than it was in college. Plus, it's a whole new defense. His learning curve is probably the highest of anyone on the whole defense, because of being a rookie and what we're asking him to do."
Time, however, isn't a luxury for the Saints or Sullivan. The season opener is less than four weeks away, Sept. 7 at Seattle.
"I don't think the young guys like Johnathan understood how fast it was going to be" on Monday night, Haslett said. "It is not like practice, and it is not like anything else you have ever seen. The thing they have to understand is that it speeds up every day. Every week gets faster. When you into the regular season, it is a lot faster. It is like a blur."
Grant is confident that by that time, it will be the opponents, not Sullivan, who will be hyperventilating.
"The defensive interior line has to be better prepared than any other position in the National Football League," Grant said. "Defensive ends are more of a finesse-type player. You see a lot of stuff before it happens. At defensive tackle, I don't think you can see it unless you've been in the league and you learn how to read really well.
"He's going to come into his own. And when he does, it's going to be all good. Just watch."
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