Casillas eager to show Saints he can start again

Jonathan Casillas was tantalizingly close to rising from the
ranks of the undrafted to an NFL starter in a mere two seasons,
only to have a freak injury in the last exhibition game of 2010
relegate him to rehab.

Now Casillas can only hope the NFL lockout won’t set him back
too much as he tries to prove to the New Orleans Saints that he
deserves another shot to start at outside linebacker.

”Of course it’s going to hinder it,” Casillas said of the
lockout’s effect on his comeback from a broken left foot.
”Everybody’s going to be hindered.”

Casillas has been unable to get treatment and continue his
rehabilitation at Saints headquarters since the lockout began March
11. So, aside from some brief trips back to his home state of New
Jersey, he has remained in New Orleans, seeing specialists on his
own and taking part in the players-only practices organized by
Saints quarterback Drew Brees at Tulane.

Casillas said he has felt good during workouts with teammates
and that none of the running or agility work has been a problem. If
there are any lingering limitations that might affect him in a
game, he is not aware of them.

”We haven’t played football yet. You never really know until
you get out there and start doing things like that,” Casillas
said. ”I’m taking my time. I’m not in a rush to do anything
football-related as of right now, you know, given the lockout
situation.”

A 6-fooot-1, 230-pound former standout at Wisconsin, Casillas
was the only rookie free-agent to earn a spot on the Saints’ 2009
roster. He wound up playing in 11 games, even starting twice. He
also got into all three playoff games, including the Saints’ Super
Bowl triumph over Indianapolis.

Not long after the Saints held their championship parade,
strong-side linebacker Scott Fujita left in free agency for
Cleveland, meaning the Saints would need a new starter in 2010.

Although Casillas played on the weak side, his performance in
training camp impressed coaches enough to move Scott Shanle to the
strong side and move Casillas up to starter on the weak side. The
move showed promise when Casillas recorded 10 tackles in the
Saints’ 2010 preseason opener at New England.

”I always believed that I could play in this league, whether it
be as a starter or regular contributor,” Casillas said. ”Going
through my rookie year, playing behind Shanle, watching Fujita and
learning from (middle linebacker Jonathan) Vilma – all those guys –
they taught me how to be a better football player, a better
professional.”

Casillas continued to consolidate his spot in the lineup until
going down in the preseason finale at Tennessee on Sept. 2 with a
Lisfranc injury, which required the insertion of two screws in his
foot and which tends to have a recovery time of seven to 12
months.

One of the screws has since been removed, but Casillas said the
other will remain.

On Sept. 4, the Saints placed Casillas on injured reserve,
officially ending his second season before it had really begun, and
he spent the fall in rehabilitation at team headquarters.

”It was tough,” Casillas said, but added that teammates and
coaches ”made me feel good about being around the facility, and I
didn’t feel like I was moping around. They made me feel good about
getting back out there and that they wanted me there.

”That was much appreciated to help me get along, and I’m
grateful for it and as motivated as I’ve ever been,” Casillas
continued. ”I feel like it’s my sophomore year in college again,
when I knew I could play. I know I can get out there and be a
starter and contribute to this defense, man, because I think we’ve
got something special.”