Saints Undrafted Rookie Proves He Belongs

Saints rookie LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar wasn't drafted in April, yet he's preparing for his second NFL start this Sunday against Broncos after a solid debut against the Redskins last week. Dunbar talked to's Ed Thompson about making the leap from the practice squad to NFL starter in less than two weeks.

During the 2008 NFL Draft, all 32 teams made the mistake of overlooking Boston College's tenacious middle linebacker, Jo-Lonn Dunbar.

And the rookie linebacker is ready to prove it once again when he makes his second NFL start at strong-side linebacker in place of the injured Scott Fujita when the New Orleans Saints (1-1) take on the undefeated Denver Broncos.

"They run the ball well, they're throwing the ball well. With Selvin Young running the ball and Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, the Broncos are really turning it on," Dunbar told during an exclusive interview on Friday. "And with those tight ends, they're just really, really solid. Their offensive line moves well.

"They know what they're doing in terms of their schemes and their concepts on offense. So we're just going to go out there and try to play some good defense against them and try to match their intensity."

Intensity and hustle are two attributes that Dunbar consistently displayed during his years at Boston College where he made 262 career tackles, 21.5 tackles for a loss, 2 interceptions, 2 1/2 sacks, defended nine passes, forced three of fumbles, and returned three of four fumble recoveries for touchdowns during 45 game appearances. A Meineke Bowl MVP, Dunbar made 14 tackles, a sack and recovered a fumble that set up the winning field goal for the Eagles.

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In one of my columns prior to the 2008 NFL Draft, I noted that, "The buzz on Dunbar is that while he may not have the ideal size and the timed measurables of a prototypical NFL middle linebacker, his instincts, vision and timing more than compensate. The bottom line when you watch his game film is that Jo-Lonn Dunbar always seems to know where the ball carrier is and how to track him down efficiently."

Saints and Redskins fans got to see Dunbar's football instincts during Washington's first play from scrimmage last Sunday when they decided to test the rookie, who had just been called up from the practice squad that week. Washington quarterback Jason Campbell tossed a quick pass to fullback Mike Sellers behind the line of scrimmage on Dunbar's side of the field. The rookie linebacker showed the savvy of a veteran on the play, flying to the ball and dropping Sellers for a one-yard loss.

"That was my signature moment. I knew I was ready to play in the NFL," Dunbar said. "I needed that first hit. In the game of football, you just want your first hit because it calms your nerves. I was completely calm from that point on, and I was ready to play some ball."

Before the day was through, Dunbar logged six tackles (three solo) and broke-up two pass attempts. Not too shabby for a guy who didn't even know that he'd be starting until Thursday of game week -- and who hadn't practiced at all up to that point as a strong-side linebacker. During training camp and preseason action, the 23-year-old defender played on the weak side of the Saints defense.

"My linebacker coach, Joe Vitt, did a great job of preparing me on short notice," Dunbar said.  "He and I met for a couple of hours each day and we studied some film. It was all relatively new to me, so he put my head in the book a little bit.  

"He taught me how to study like a pro, and it paid off for me. So I credit him with a lot of my success on Sunday."

But despite his accelerated classroom preparation, taking the field as a starter and at a new position presented a number of challenges for the rookie. Not only was he seeing plays develop from the outside rather than from the middle, he also had to adjust to the skill level of playing against veteran NFL starters in live game action.

"These guys are really talented and they're really precise with their technique. It's a whole different game from college ball," Dunbar said. "So I wasn't looking to be the hero, I was looking to come out and do my job, make plays when I'm called on and stay focused on my technique. And as a result, I was able to play well."

This week the 6-foot tall, 226-pound defender was able to work and study as a starter along with the rest of the starting defense, so he feels much better prepared for this weekend's contest.

"I got more on-field preparation instead of mainly on the blackboard and in the video room," he explained. "It's different when you're on the field seeing things happening and the way they develop than looking at it on a blackboard or a screen. So I think I have a better feel for what Denver is actually going to try to do.

"But it can be a whole different thing when you get out there on Sunday when sparks start flying and you have to just run around and play some football."

Denver's offense has been creating plenty of sparks already, boasting league-best averages of 40 points per game and 463.5 yards of total offense. But Dunbar believes the Saints are up to the challenge. 

"I think we had a good week of preparation, and we're going to come out and try to play Denver hard and play a good game of football," he said. subscribers can click here to read an exclusive Q&A session between Jo-Lonn Dunbar and's Ed Thompson where he talks about Denver quarterback Jay Cutler and wide receiver Eddie Royal, his role as the strong-side linebacker in the Saints' scheme, his training camp experience and more.

A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the network and at You can contact him by email through this link.

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