If there's any one thing that truly stood out during the first practice of Saints Training Camp yesterday, it was that one brand new assistant coach's fingerprints were all over the way that the Saints opened up practice on defense, specifically at the linebacker position.
When the linebackers took the field for the first "live snap" of practice, the Saints starting 3 linebackers in their base 4-3 defensive alignment were Mantai Te'o at middle / "Mike" linebacker, A.J. Klein at strongside / "Sam" linebacker, and SURPRISE!!! --- Stephone Anthony at weakside / "Will" linebacker.
Anthony's appearance on the field as a starter -- and at a position that although he's more than capable of playing, was still one that no one honestly envisioned him playing -- was a bit unexpected to say the least, but it was an indication of the influence and the steady-handed guidance being given to this vitally important position group of the Saints defense by perhaps the franchise's most important off-season addition: new linebackers coach Mike Nolan.
The irony is, there's nothing "new" about Nolan himself.
Nolan has been in coaching in one way, shape, or form of another dating all the way back to the 1981 NFL season; and has an ample amount of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator as well as a stint as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 2005-08.
Nolan is considered by some to be a defensive "guru", because of his vast knowledge and experience as well as his flexibility to implement either of the sport's two basic defensive alignments, the 3-4 and the 4-3.
Nolan replaced Joe Vitt, who was one of five assistant coaches that the Saints dismissed shortly after the end of last season in early January. Vitt was also the team's assistant head coach under Sean Payton and had been coaching the Saints linebacker corps since 2006. Vitt is now with Miami, on the staff of his son-in-law and Dolphins head coach Adam Gase.
Nolan actually didn't coach at all last year in 2016, since he had taken a year off to refresh and recharge; and did some radio and television work on the side with NFL Network and Sirius XM Satellite Radio.
Prior to that in 2015, he was linebackers coach for the San Diego Chargers, and his three previous jobs were as defensive coordinator -- Atlanta Falcons from 2012-14, Miami Dolphins from 2010-11 and Denver Broncos in 2009.
Now, "Dick Nolan's kid" (as older Saints fans like to refer to to him as, since he's also the son of former Saints head coach Dick Nolan from the late 1970's) will have the job of improving the Saints' performance at the linebacker position.
And though it's way too early to tell if the Saints LB corps is "improved" over last season after just one practice into 2017 Training Camp, Nolan's impact thus far is indisputable.
The move of Anthony to the weakside /"Will" linebacker position is notable because of his well-publicized struggles last year with reading and diagnosing offenses, particularly in his zone-coverage responsibilities while he was lined up at strongside /"Sam" linebacker -- the position that he was moved to last year after a fairly impressive debut season as a rookie in 2015 where he played at middle / "Mike" linebacker.
Now here's what's important to remember: Anthony is a PHENOMENAL talent.
We're talking about a young man who not all that long ago (7 years to be exact), was the consensus #1 rated linebacker in the entire nation coming out of high school from Anson High School in North Carolina (a small town right near the North Carolina - South Carolina state line), his home state where he was also recognized as the North Carolina Player of the Year before becoming an All-ACC performer for 4 years at Clemson University.
Talent has never been a question for Stephone Anthony. Not ever.
It's all about picking up the mental aspect of the game for him, and there was never a doubt that Nolan --- if nobody else could --- was the one person who could come in and essentially "save" Anthony's career.
Nolan has spent a large portion of the Saints off-season working with Anthony one-on-one; and although the team was only in t-shirts and shorts yesterday and don't wear full pads until tomorrow's open practice, the results of Nolan's guidance of Anthony was quite evident.
#Saints LB Stephone Anthony starting on the weak side to begin camp. Mike Nolan working miracles?
— Deuce Windham (@RevDeuceWindham) July 27, 2017
During yesterday’s Camp-opening practice, Anthony had two moments that "stood out", as observed by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill.
The first one happened when Anthony read a run and stopped Adrian Peterson dead in his tracks for no gain. Then, the second stand-out moment came when he read a screen pass for Peterson and nearly broke it up in the backfield.
As Underhill points out: after sitting out most of last season because of issues with reading both the run and the pass, it was important to see Anthony make some plays and show his natural instincts. And by playing on the weak side, Anthony can better exhibit his athleticism and make plays --- which obviously could be to his benefit.
And you can give Nolan credit for realizing it, and providing the Saints defensive coaching staff with yet another option for how they will utilize their linebacking corps in the upcoming season ahead.
The Saints as an organization have put a great emphasis on upgrading the linebacker position this off-season, and the group is now as deep and talented as it has been in several years.
And perhaps even more importantly: they're extremely versatile.
A handful of players are capable of playing at least two different positions, and four players -- veterans A.J. Klein and Craig Robertson, rookie Alex Anzalone, and of course Stephone Anthony -- can play ALL 3 linebacking positions.
That gives the Saints coaching staff and specifically Nolan, the opportunity to do a lot of things scheme-wise, and it's the reason why you will see the team "mix and match" and rotate a variety of certain players in and out of the line-up; to evaluate who can do what, and which looks / coverages are the ones that work best.
And for Nolan, evaluating what linebackers can and can't do, is what he does best.
Players LOVE playing for him, because of his unique, "hands-on" approach; where instead of just barking out orders or instructions to them, takes the time to explain in great detail just exactly what it is that they need to do not just physically, but mentally as well.
“I think the biggest difference between coaches — outside of the scheme that they’re using, which is really what the coordinator decides primarily — is how you teach what he wants done,” Nolan told Underhill during Mini-Camp last month.
“Maybe some of the language I use paints a better picture of what it’s supposed to look like.”
Whatever his methodology, it seems to be working already; as yesterday's practice seemed to clearly indicate.
That bodes well for the Saints defense; and it's exactly the reason why that as the Saints now head into Day 3 of Training Camp and their 2nd Practice thus far, the impact of Mike Nolan is indisputable.........