METAIRIE, La. -- Normally a practice scuffle isn’t the best way to demonstrate a player’s maturity in the NFL. But that was oddly the case for New Orleans Saints rookie David Onyemata a couple of weeks ago.
Onyemata, the Saints’ Nigerian-born defensive tackle who just began playing football five years ago when he went to college in Canada, faced a much bigger learning curve than most last season. And Saints coach Sean Payton described the fourth-round draft pick as someone who “comes across as very warm, which I think he is, and he’s someone that’s bright.”
So Payton said he was “shocked” -- and seemed a little pleasantly surprised -- when he pulled apart the bodies during a rare in-season practice scuffle and found Onyemata right in the middle of it.
“In other words, in a quiet way, I think he’s really established himself and is gaining the respect of his teammates,” Payton said. “And I really like the draft pick, I like the prospect. I think he’s only going to get better.”
Onyemata laughed when asked about Payton’s anecdote -- but he also agreed with the coach’s assessment that it was a sign of him getting comfortable in his new league.
“Pretty much, I’d say so,” said Onyemata, who said the past nine months were a huge period of growth for him.
“Definitely, because the whole year, it’s been all football. So I’ve learned a lot, just being in there, being with the coaches,” said Onyemata, who played 23.5 snaps per game as a rotational 3-technique tackle.
“It went by pretty fast. You hear guys talk about it, but just experiencing it by myself, like seeing how 20 weeks went by so fast. You don’t really think about it until like the final play during the season,” Onyemata said. “It went really good. Just the main part was getting the opportunity to play. So that was the main focus, and that happened.”
Onyemata played even more snaps during the first half of the season while first-round draft pick and fellow DT Sheldon Rankins was sidelined by a broken fibula. But Onyemata remained a part of the rotation all year long and finished with 18 tackles and four quarterback hits.
“I think [Onyemata’s growth] has been fairly rapid,” Payton said of the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder. “There’ll be things that happen in practice, there’ll be events. This learning curve, it happens, once it’s corrected, generally, it doesn’t repeat itself.
Well, Jordan seemed to agree that Onyemata has even more room to leap after transitioning from the Canadian game, where they play 12 men per side and play a yard off the football at the line of scrimmage, among other differences.
“Onyemata is strong as an ox. His football IQ has probably quadrupled. And that being said, he was playing 12-man football, a yard off the ball and rushing the passer. So things are different,” Jordan said. “No doubt, Onyemata [grew] from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, I mean he’s had 16 games of playing 11-man football. So that alone is something he progressed the right way, every step of the way.
“This rookie class has been good. I’m looking really forward to next year when they can have that year under their belt, just savvy and ready to play football.”