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John DeShazier: Tim Lelito ready if called upon

Tim Lelito could get the start at Center in primetime Sunday

Tim Lelito actually does have game experience as a starting center.

"I'm pretty sure I was center back in, like, eighth grade," he said, with a smile. "That's the last time the good old four-point, two hands on the ball so you don't slip. I think that's the last time I played center."

Kidding aside, the Saints (1-2) feel they're in good hands if the second-year offensive lineman makes his first NFL start at center Sunday night at AT&T Stadium, when New Orleans plays Dallas (2-1) in a nationally-televised game.

First, he's not exactly foreign to his line mates, having started two games at right guard last season as a rookie. And, two, he's not totally foreign to the position as a pro.

He was the No. 2 center last year, and snapped to backup quarterback Luke McCown all year during practice. And he was the Saints' starting center for most of the offseason, throughout OTAs and minicamp, before New Orleans re-signed Jonathan Goodwin and opened up the competition. The winner was declared deep into training camp, around the third preseason game.

So if Goodwin is a no-go against the Cowboys – and he missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday because of an injured ankle – Lelito is ready to step in.

Goodwin suffered the injury Sunday against Minnesota in the third quarter; Lelito finished the game and settled in after his first snap "came in hot" and was fumbled by Drew Brees. On the final two drives Lelito played, the Saints scored a touchdown and ran the final 6:58 off the clock in their 20-9 victory.

"I'm pretty comfortable," he said. "I got comfortable with it last year because that's what I did in practice. Even though it wasn't Drew back there, it was Luke – it's not the same but it helped out a lot last year."
He gained familiarity with his teammates and a better understanding during the offseason work.

"Even being with Drew, knowing his cadence and everything like that," he said. "But being with those guys (on the offensive line), and knowing exactly where they're going to be and how they work and what they actually say when they're up there, (was invaluable)."

Plus, Lelito said, it's nice having a couple of Pro Bowl guards – right guard Jahri Evans and left guard Ben Grubbs – sandwiching him.

"Tim isn't a stranger to us," Grubbs said. "He was there during OTAs, before Goody got here, and he did a pretty good job. And I think he has progressed since then and he's becoming a pretty good center.

"There are some things that he has to work out but I've been playing guard all my career, and I'm still working on some things. So I think he's in a good position. If he has to play center, I think we'll be just fine.

"He came in as a guard, then they kind of transitioned him over to playing center throughout (last) season. But he's that guy that you can count on at center or guard. I think that's why he's such a value to us and I think he's going to continue to get better."

That's the consensus among Saints offensive linemen, that Lelito is a known commodity to them even if he largely is unknown outside the locker room.

"He got a lot of reps, really was running with the (starters) through training camp, pretty much," right tackle Zach Strief said. "So, (he's) a guy we're comfortable with, got to see a lot in the preseason, got a lot of reps in live action with the first group in the preseason.

"And we said all along, it was kind of like, you're picking between two starters and one of those guys had to win and one of them had to lose, but both guys that we feel completely comfortable with. Timmy has grown a lot and Timmy had a lot to work with to begin with."

He'll have the chance to show just how much he has grown, and how much he has to work with, against Dallas when he makes his first NFL start at center.

"I see it as a big deal," Lelito said. "It's a new position for me, but at the same time, it's still football. So you've still got to go out there and perform."

Photos of the New Orleans Saints vs Dallas Cowboys game on Sunday, November 10, 2013. Photos taken by Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)

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