METAIRIE, La. -- I don't think I've ever covered a player who came into the NFL with more unbridled enthusiasm than New Orleans Saints linebacker Junior Galette did as an undrafted rookie out of Division II Stillman College in Alabama. Galette had passion that could be seen with his relentless effort on the practice field. And often heard -- with emotional reactions after both good and bad plays.
I vividly remember Galette talking a mile a minute the first time I interviewed him during that 2010 training camp.
"This is the dream. This is like a one-in-a-million shot. Man, I'm with the world champions, you understand? The first day I got here, I was like, 'Did I just break the huddle with Drew Brees? I was just playing with him in 'Madden,'" Galette, who spent one season at Stillman after running into trouble at Temple, said that summer.
"It's just the opportunity of a lifetime, and I'm living every day like it's my last day. That's why I'm out here every day, jumping around and spirited, and guys are like, 'What's wrong with him? It's 110 degrees out here.' And I'm just like, 'Man, you guys don't even know what I just went through to get here.'"
Four years into Galette's NFL career, not much has changed.
Well, except for the fact that he's now a breakout starter who sacked Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton three times this past Sunday night -- something most people can't even pull off on "Madden."
"Every year I go into it like, 'This is my year.' That's my mindset," said Galette, who grew up in Haiti before moving to New York around the age of 10. "Rookie year, I wasn't playing, I came in, 'This is my year I have to perform.' That has to be your mindset. It takes time. Everybody has the road that they walk on, and this is my road right now and I'm embracing it one day at a time."
This type of potential was always evident in Galette, who now has a career-high nine sacks for the Saints' revitalized defense. As a situational pass-rusher, the 6-foot-2, 258-pounder had 4.5 sacks in 2011 and five sacks last year. But as dynamic as he was, he was also still a little raw and one-dimensional.
When asked if he has gotten substantially better this year -- or if he has just gotten more of an opportunity -- Galette said, "I think it's a little bit of both."
One of the primary reasons for Galette's enhanced role was necessity after veteran pass-rushers Will Smith and Victor Butler suffered season-ending knee injuries during the summer. But even before those injuries, Saints coaches such as Sean Payton, Joe Vitt and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had all suggested both publicly and privately that they thought Galette might be ready to make this kind of leap.
"I came in a perfect situation, to come in when this young man's just finally hitting his stride," Ryan said this summer -- comparing Galette to former Oakland Raiders star Derrick Burgess, who had a breakout season under Ryan in 2005.
"When Rob got here, he actually called me," Galette said Wednesday. "He said he's looking at this film and didn't really know who I was before. And he was like, 'Wow, you can be special.'
"I'm like, 'Man, this guy's just building my confidence up.' Because I know I believed it. But then for him to actually act on it and put me out there and say, 'You're gonna be a starter, we want you to be a starter here,' it feels really good."
Galette and third-year end Cameron Jordan have played off each other brilliantly this season. Jordan, a former first-round draft pick who is more of a power rusher, is having an even bigger breakout in the national spotlight with a career-high 11.5 sacks. But they often work in tandem -- like on Galette's first sack last Sunday.
On that play, Galette flushed Newton out of the pocket. But when Newton ran into Jordan's path, he retreated back into Galette's grasp.
Both players are also quick to give credit to the consistent push the defensive line is getting this year -- as well as the standout coverage from the secondary that's buying them time up front.
"We spoke about it for quite a while now, ever since Cam [Jordan] got drafted," Galette said. "I used to speak with Cam his rookie year, I was like, man, I knew he was a beast. But obviously you have to wait for certain things to happen for us to be playing at the same time.
"We've been speaking about it for a while. But it's actually happening. So it's kind of a surreal feeling. But at the same time, it's like we knew it was gonna happen, like we called it. We really did. We knew that he has the power and all the skill set to beat any tackle in this league. And I come off the edge with speed and push the pocket. And then you got guys in the middle that can actually press the pocket better than any interior D-linemen that we've had here."
See what I mean about that unbridled enthusiasm?
Galette has matured over the past four years. In the past, he explained his trouble at Temple as a series of "boneheaded mistakes," including personality clashes with coaches and an incident in which his cousin was arrested for stealing laptop computers from the dorm while staying with Galette.
But as Galette has grown up, that passion has never wavered.
"He's obviously come a long way," Payton said when asked to think back to his early impressions of Galette. "He was a free agent we looked closely at. We saw speed and athleticism in the player. To his credit, he came into a real good locker room and really made this his No. 1 priority. That sounds like a given, but where he's at now is because he had a vision, and he worked extremely hard to put himself in that position.
"I think that each year he has gotten better. He's extremely focused on his position and on his job."