"CRUNCH TIME". For the New Orleans Saints and the other 32 teams in the NFL, that phrase is often used as an analogy for a period of time in which it is necessary for players to give their very best possible performance and effort, during a critical juncture of the game.
And it was one of Louisiana's own — Saints center / offensive guard and Baton Rouge native Cameron Tom — who came up big in crunch time this past Sunday in the Black and Gold's 24-23 win over Baltimore; when he was forced to fill in at left guard after 3 other O-linemen (Andrus Peat, Jermon Bushrod, and Josh LeRiebus) were all out of the game and completely unavailable.
Tom normally is the designated back-up at center behind starter Max Unger, but also is capable of playing guard if needed; and when the game's starter Josh LeRiebus went out with an injured ankle in the 2nd quarter, Tom came in and performed admirably.
From that point on following Tom's entrance into the line-up, the Saints O-Line didn't allow another sack for the remainder of the game.
As noted by neworleanssaints.com senior writer / analyst John DeShazier: the Saints O-Line as a whole only allowed one sack (before Tom filled in) against a Ravens team that was averaging 4.5 per game and they were able to score 17 fourth-quarter points against a defense that was allowing 12.8 points per game coming in.
DeShazier adds that both analysts as well as fans have often marveled for the last couple of years at the Saints’ ability to "mix-and-match" along the offensive line when injuries occur and not suffer a letdown in execution; and this past Sunday with Tom was the latest example.
Signed by New Orleans last Spring as an undrafted free agent signee out of the University of Southern Mississippi after he surprisingly wasn't taken in the 2017 NFL Draft, Tom emerged last year as a player who could do a more than capable job of filling in for Unger — and is currently the leading candidate to replace him someday.
Tom impressed the team enough last Pre-Season during practices and games, to convince them to immediately re-sign him to the team's Practice Squad; right after he had been waived during the final cut-down to the Final 53-man roster.
While continuing to work hard to get better and learning how to refine his skill and techniques during the early part of last season, it was then reported last October that the Washington Redskins had shown interest in signing him to their active roster off the Saints Practice Squad.
But the Saints beat the Redskins to the punch, and not only gave Tom a raise in salary, but signed him to their active roster to keep him away from other teams.
Tom actually used to root for the Saints as a kid growing up in Baton Rouge; and he played high school ball at the city's prep powerhouse Catholic High School.
He was originally slated to be a 5th Round pick following his career at Southern Miss, but went undrafted not long before the Saints snapped him up immediately after the Draft's conclusion.
The Saints were among a handful of NFL teams with scouts on hand for Southern Mississippi's Pro Day back on March , and Senior NFL Draft analyst for CBS Sports and NFLdraftscout.com Dane Brugler told the Hattiesburg American's Southern Miss football beat writer Jason Munz at the time that Tom had been the most likely of a trio of Golden Eagles players (QB Nick Mullens and defensive lineman Dylan Bradley were the others) to have his name called during the draft, where Tom had been projected as high as a 5th Round pick.
"He has a lean lower body and needs to continue and fill out his frame, but sinks his weight to anchor and looks to win the leverage battle," Brugler said.
"Tom understands his strengths and utilizes body angles correctly to wall off run lanes. A possible late draft choice or priority free agent, Tom is a prime practice squad candidate while he develops."
The 6-foot-4, 291 pound Tom is a player who Walter Football.com referred to prior to the 2017 Draft as 'an athletic interior blocker who possesses quickness and agility on the inside, but could stand to get stronger for the NFL'.
It's that lack of size (he "only" weighed 287 pounds coming out of college) more than anything that caused him to go undrafted, but bulking up and having to gain weight in most instances is a lot easier than having to lose it.
Tom was First Team All-CUSA at center in 2016 and was considered the 5th best center in the 2017 Draft class. He was also on the Rimington Trophy Watch List for the nation's best interior lineman.
He began his career in Hattiesburg playing almost immediately on the offensive line; and ended up playing 11 of the Golden Eagles' 12 games in 2013, starting the final nine games of the season and garnering Conference USA All-Freshman honors as a result.
Tom picked up right where he left off as a sophomore, but was moved to the center position and never skipped a beat. While Southern Miss struggled with a 3-9 record, Tom was part of an offense that produced just over 4,300 yards of total offense. He was named All-Conference USA (Honorable Mention) in 2014.
He topped that in his junior season after he was named to the preseason Second Team All-CUSA team; and helped the Golden Eagles win the C-USA West Division title, along with a trip to a bowl game while helping USM set or tie 22 school records on offense. Tom was named as a First Team All-CUSA that year as well.
Not to be overlooked is Tom's high IQ both on and off the field of play. Tom was considered one of the better student-athletes in all of Conference USA. He was named to the Conference USA Commissioner's Honor Roll all 4 years (2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016) as well as the Capitol One Academic All-District 6 (2014-First Team). Tom was part of the All-CUSA Academic Team in 2015 and again last year in 2016.
The Saints were obviously familiar with Tom throughout the 2017 Draft process, and of course his ties to the surrounding southeastern Louisiana region as a top high school player.
At Baton Rouge Catholic, Tom played both guard and tackle, earning Honorable Mention All-State and First Team All-Metro as a senior. He helped the Bears win district titles back-to-back in 2011 and 2012.
His excellent play earned him a two star rating by 247Sports.com, Rivals.com and Scout.com. He was also named the #78 overall prospect in Louisiana following the 2012 season, by 247Sports.com.
Despite playing in metro Baton Rouge and not all that far from the LSU campus, Tom was essentially ignored by LSU recruiters and then-head coach Les Miles; and was only offered scholarships in-state by Louisiana Tech and Tulane.
North Texas, Memphis, Arkansas State, and Southern Miss also offered scholarships, but in the end, it came down to USM and La. Tech — and Tom opted to go to Hattiesburg after being wooed by then-new head coach Todd Monken as part of his first recruiting class.
Now we fast-forward to this past weekend in Baltimore, and Tom has clearly proven that he BELONGS in the NFL: an accomplishment that should come as no surprise for one of the best pure, pound-for-pound players ever to emerge from the city of Baton Rouge.
As the (5-1) Saints head into Minnesota this upcoming Sunday, you can certainly bet that the 23-year old Tom will be ready at a moment's notice to fill in once again, should the Saints need him to.
And should that just happen to be at yet another critical juncture against the Vikings as it was against the Ravens; then Saints fans can now rest easy that "Baton Rouge's Best" will come up big during "crunch time", once again....