Saints linebacker and defensive conscience
That was the assignment last year, when Vilma was injured and serving his NFL-mandated suspension. And those were the marching orders that were re-issued again Thursday, a day before preseason game No. 2 against Oakland on Friday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, when Vilma had arthroscopic knee surgery that is expected to sideline him for at least the rest of preseason.
But this time, Hawthorne is hoping for better results.
Last season, Hawthorne, a free agent signee from Seattle, also played injured. A bad hamstring forced him to miss five games; in 10 starts and 11 games at weakside and strongside linebacker, he finished with 43 tackles. Previously, he’d stacked three consecutive seasons of at least 15 starts and 105 tackles for the Seahawks.
“My opportunity is out there, definitely,” said Hawthorne, who was credited with three tackles against Kansas City in the preseason opener last Friday. “My whole focus is just to give myself the best opportunity, by my play, by my practice, by my camp, staying healthy and competing. That’s been my goal and that’s what I’ve been sticking to.”
It’s an opportunity to show what he can do, healthy, in the Saints’ 3-4 defensive front, rather than the 4-3 from last season. But the key part of the alignment is that Hawthorne is healthy.
“I came here to play football and when you get sidelined by injury after injury, it kind of gets you down,” Hawthorne said. “You don’t really know your place. When you’re here to do a job and you can’t do your job, it’s a little down. But that’s all behind me. I’m feeling good and I’m feeling healthy.
“I just took the approach, ‘Now that I’m healthy, let’s show the reason why I’m here.’ Every day, I put my hardhat on and I come to work. Everything else will kind of take care of itself.”
Said Coach Sean Payton: “His role will increase in this game because of (Vilma’s surgery). The most important thing is getting a chance to evaluate all these players. A guy like Jon Vilma, I know exactly what we have in that player. It gives us a chance to see not only Hawthorne more, but if he’s going earlier, the guys behind him are getting to play quicker, too.”
But Hawthorne, who led the Seahawks in tackles in consecutive seasons (2010-11) before joining New Orleans, understands better through experience what it is to step in for Vilma. And he feels he has something to prove.
“(I want to show) I’m here for a reason,” he said. “I’m here to go out and compete and do my 1/11th in order to bring success to the team. Whatever they ask me to do, they know I’m going to go out there and do it at a high level.
“I think the first thing is, I’ve been feeling good, I’ve been staying healthy. That always gives you a chance to go out on a daily basis and just showcase your skill. I’ve been able to do that on a high level and I think the coaches have been noticing that, me coming out and being ready to compete every day.”
NOTES: Payton stressed the significance of Friday’s game to players on Thursday. Several roster spots remain available and there’s still time to make a favorable impression. “It’s an important game for a lot of guys,” he said. “Obviously, this evaluation process is ongoing. But for a number of players, they’ll get more snaps and more opportunities for us to see where they’re at.”