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tiggerpolice 08-10-2005 07:25 AM

Maturity leads to Stallworth's breakout year
Maturity leads to Stallworth's breakout year

Advocate sportswriter

Advocate staff photo by Mark Saltz
Donte' Stallworth catches a pass in practice two weeks ago.

METAIRIE -- Other than having his team come up short in a late charge to make the playoffs, the 2004 NFL season couldn't have gone any better for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Donte' Stallworth.
While most observers would guess that playing in all 16 games for the first time in his three-year career was the key to Stallworth posting career-highs with 58 receptions for 767 yards, he said there was more to it than that.

Yes, being injury-free played a big part. But there was something else that propelled Stallworth to his breakout season, a level of maturity that the Saints coaches had been waiting to see since the team made the former Tennessee speedster its top draft pick in 2002.

"I think maturity had a lot to do with it," said Stallworth, who won't turn 25 until Nov. 10. "A lot of it was me understanding the offense a lot more, but that came with me being here for three years. Learning to take care of my body helped, too."

But growing up as a person and a player was the real key. As a rookie, Stallworth said he was fined enough by coach Jim Haslett to buy "a small luxury car." But he wouldn't divulge the exact amount.

"Let's just leave it at that," he said with a slight chuckle.

To show just how far he's come, Stallworth said it's been almost a year since he has had to reach into his pocket to pay Haslett for being late for a meeting or practice, or any of the many transgressions players can be fined for. He was reminded of it when Haslett walked through the locker room before a recent training camp practice.

"It was about five minutes before practice and I was still getting taped," Stallworth said. "Has said, 'You used to be one of my best customers, but I haven't gotten any money from you in a long time.'"

That's what three seasons in the NFL will do for a youngster who was just 21 when the Saints chose him with the 13th overall pick in 2002.

"In my rookie year, I learned a lot from Jake Reed," Stallworth said. "Then, I learned a lot from (former teammate) Jerome Pathon. Obviously, I'm still learning from Joe (Horn). I took a lot from all of them and put that into my own game, and that's had a lot to do with my maturity."

Now, Stallworth is looking for bigger things. He started nine games last season and cemented his starting spot opposite Horn with a solid offseason under the watchful eye of first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard.

When Mike McCarthy resigned to take a job with the San Francisco 49ers in late January, Haslett looked around before promoting Sheppard. Stallworth couldn't have been happier because he often turned to Sheppard, the quarterbacks coach, to help him refine his routes.

"I had gotten close to him (Sheppard) and he would show me what I was doing wrong, or he would tell me where to be on a certain route from a quarterback's perspective," Stallworth said.

The first time the two talked after Sheppard moved up, Stallworth forgot to congratulate him. That's because was eager to ask if he could play the slot receiver spot on certain plays, which he did a lot at Tennessee.

"I told him that's what I had in mind," said Stallworth. "I wanted to get in the slot since I've been playing here, but I didn't feel as comfortable talking to Mike McCarthy as I did with Mike Sheppard. I like Shep a lot because of his broadmindedness."

The change in his duties will be beneficial, Stallworth said, to the offense because his size and speed will create more matchup problems for opposing defenses. For example, he said he should come across more linebackers and safeties when he lines up inside against zone defenses.

"It just opens you up a lot more, there are a lot more routes that you can run," he said. "You have a lot more field to work with and one of my strong suits is picking up yards after the catch. There's a lot more room and a lot more damage you can do."

Teammate Michael Lewis said that excites the offense when they see Stallworth, a 6-foot, 196-pounder who's averaged 14.8 yards a catch on 125 career receptions, get a favorable matchup -- even in practice.

"He's going to get a lot of mismatches on the inside," Lewis said. "Not everybody knows how physical Donté is. I've seen him put big cornerbacks down on the ground and put moves on smaller defensive backs."

And now, in his new role, there's no telling how far a more mature Stallworth will go.

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