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Ahead of the game: Saints rookie LB Stephone Anthony impresses

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony said he loves wearing the communication device inside his helmet to relay signals from the sideline. It’s a perk the New Orleans Saints’ first-round draft pick didn’t have at Clemson.

“I would have loved to have one of those in college,” Anthony said. “You get the call five seconds before everybody, so you process it a little faster.”

Maybe that’s his secret -- because Anthony seems to have a head start on the rest of New Orleans’ rookie class so far this summer.

The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder has been one of the brightest spots in all of Saints camp, taking full advantage of his chance to line up as the Mike linebacker and signal-caller with the starting defense for most of the past five days.

He has flashed his power and athleticism -- the highlight coming during a 9-on-7 run drill during the first day in pads.

He also has impressed off the field, with coaches and veteran teammates praising his work ethic and attitude.

Veteran linebacker Parys Haralson said Anthony’s play has been reminiscent of the presence receiver Brandin Cooks had as a rookie last year, which is high praise when you consider how much the Saints have raved about Cooks’ makeup.

“I think right now he’s one of those guys that you look at and you know that in a couple years he’s going to be one of those elite linebackers that actually is a leader off the field and on the field,” Haralson said. “He prepares, he’s smart, he’s physical and he works hard. So I think he’s got a really bright future.”

“There’s a physical presence to him when he’s out there,” Saints coach Sean Payton added, though he stressed that Anthony is still a work in progress.

“Much like (rookie offensive lineman) Andrus Peat, you just can’t give him enough reps,” Payton said. “We’ve been careful about how much we’re installing, and I think that’s helped him and some of the younger players on defense. (There is) still a lot of work to do, but it’s encouraging.”

OK, so it might be a little early to anoint Anthony as the next leader of the Saints defense, following a long line of veterans who have held that position, from Mark Simoneau to Jonathan Vilma to Curtis Lofton.

But that’s what Anthony is aiming to become.

When asked what he wants his veteran teammates to think of him, and if he wants to be great, Anthony didn’t flinch.

“Oh, that’s the goal. That’s the ultimate goal. Yeah, I want to be great,” Anthony said. “And I want those guys to respect me. I want those guys to look at me as being somebody they can count on.”

Anthony started 35 games at Clemson, including the final two seasons as the Mike linebacker and quarterback of the Tigers’ outstanding defense. He finished his career with 330 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 34.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and five forced fumbles.

Anthony has been working with the first-string defense over the past four days since veteran Will linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has been sidelined by an unspecified injury. But Ellerbe was back during Monday’s afternoon walk-through, with fellow vet David Hawthorne sliding back over to the starting Mike job.

Chances are, all three of those guys will spend the summer jockeying for two starting jobs.

Anthony said he still faces “those little hurdles every day, different mistakes.” And he’s still focusing on the finer points, like keeping his feet under him since he’s long and athletic.

He also admitted that it was a little “nerve-wracking” at first to stand in the starting huddle, with so many established NFL veterans looking to him for direction -- just as it was for him to have to bust out singing “Lean on Me” the other night as part of the rookie initiation process.

“But as time goes on, you earn your respect,” Anthony said, “and you keep knocking down the trees every day.”