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saint5221 08-27-2003 07:08 AM

Rookie TE Hilton biggest surprise of Saints camp

Rookie TE Hilton biggest surprise of Saints camp

Former Tar Heel may have roster spot

Wednesday August 27, 2003

By Brian Allee-Walsh
Staff writer

Rookie tight end Zach Hilton was a long shot to make the Saints' 53-man roster when training camp opened five weeks ago.

Now it's hard to bet against him.

Unquestionably, he has been the biggest surprise of camp and likely caused Saints coach Jim Haslett to keep four tight ends instead of three going into the regular season.

The leading candidates are Ernie Conwell, Boo Williams, Walter Rasby and Hilton, an undrafted free agent from the University of North Carolina who has three catches for a team-high 93 yards and one touchdown in three preseason games.

Veteran tight end David Sloan, who has been sidelined much of camp after undergoing shoulder surgery Aug. 4, could be the odd man out.

Sloan entered camp as the team's No. 2 tight end, but that spot now technically belongs to Williams.

"We have five quality tight ends, and the young kid (Hilton) has really been a surprise," Haslett said Tuesday. "No one probably expected him to be in the race right now."

"I'm sure when we walked out of draft day Zach wasn't a guy who you counted on making your 53, so I guess you could say he's been a definite surprise," Saints offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy said. "It's nice to see young players step up because you never really know until you stick them in the frying pan.

"He's a young player that everybody's excited about, and rightfully so. He's done everything we've asked. The most important thing is Zach has performed when the lights come on, and that's a big part of him making the team. I'm really impressed with what he's done in game situations. It hasn't been too big for him."

Hilton has come up big in the preseason, catching passes of 26 (a touchdown), 20 and 47 yards. At 6 feet 8, 262 pounds, he provides a big target for quarterbacks and runs pretty well after the catch.

"Zach was a steal," Saints tight ends coach Bob Palcic said. "He was a kid who should have been drafted and wasn't. I think a lot of people were afraid that he's a high-cut kid, and they had questions about his blocking.

"I never had questions about his pass-receiving ability. I gave him a fifth-round grade, and he slipped through the cracks. We're fortunate to get him. I think he has a good future in the league. He's addressed his weaknesses in terms of his blocking, and he's progressing very well."

Hilton started his junior and senior season and was named the Tar Heels' Most Improved Player after catching 19 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns in 2002.

Although some people might be surprised by his performance in camp, Hilton said he knew he had the potential to play in the NFL.

"I didn't know if I was necessarily going to make it with the Saints," he said. "But I felt like I could play in the league this year. I felt like I had all the tools. It was only a matter of using them and showing people what I could do.

"I knew I was going to have to step it up and play real well and stand out. Because everybody stands out at this level; everybody's good. At one time we had six tight ends rotating and you don't get a lot of reps, so when you get an opportunity you got to take advantage of it."

Initially, Saints officials viewed Hilton as a developmental prospect, a player who would benefit with a season on a practice squad.

But because of his emergence in camp, it appears they would rather keep him on the final 53-man roster than expose him to other teams on the league's waiver wire.

"I always knew I had the potential to play this well," Hilton said. "I think things are coming together as I'm growing up and getting some years playing the game, and I'm starting to understand my body. I just feel a lot more comfortable out there and I'm a lot more confident."

. . . . . . .

Brian Allee-Walsh can be reached at or (504) 826-3805.

SFinAustin 08-27-2003 10:13 AM

Rookie TE Hilton biggest surprise of Saints camp
I think he will make the team and be really productive in the redzone!

SaintNik 08-27-2003 10:37 AM

Rookie TE Hilton biggest surprise of Saints camp
Saints are deep at TE with 5 players likely to be on an active roster in the league this year. Hilton is the big suprise in camp this year as the team had expected him to be a player in need of grooming at least another year. Projected to be a developmental squad candidate, his play has caught the attention of coaches and fans and you can bet personnel folks around the league. If cut, he probably would not clear waivers to go on developmental but if he did some team would pluck him off during the course of the year.

The Saints are still trying to improve the backup RB and are willing to make a trade to upgrade. Boo Williams is the most likely candidate to be traded. He is young, has added bulk to his body for the blocking part of the game, and is a natural reciever who can run well. He would be a good fit with the Redskins. Tony Gonzales was hurt in practice yesterday and may miss some time for the Chiefs. David Sloan could be the odd man out as things stand. Hilton could be used in the redzone as a jump ball target with his 6\' 8\" height. Teams would not be able to defend this.

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