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Chris Ivory is turning heads in New Orleans
Football - Tue, Aug. 10, 2010
8/10 - Story courtesy of nola.com and James Varney - The Times-Picayune
Photo by Eliot Kamenitz/The Times-Picayune

Coming off a Super Bowl victory, it's no surprise the New Orleans Saints' starting roster is largely set and consequently the real battles of training camp are further down the depth chart.

There, a very good one is shaping up at running back.Second-year player P.J. Hill, a Wisconsin product who came close to making the Saints last year, is locked up with Chris Ivory, a free agent out of less-known Tiffin. And the beauty of the battle isn't so much its singular nature given the Saints' talent, it's that both have shown genuine flashes of excellence.

The rep order shows Hill is currently No. 4, as might be expected given his experience and the fact he has already drawn attention from three NFL teams in his short career. He has responded with several impressive runs.

But Ivory, an imposing physical specimen, also has ripped off some strong runs. And while each has dropped a pass, the Saints continue to throw to both out of the backfield. It's clear, as Coach Sean Payton noted, that the decision, first, on whether the team keeps four "halfbacks" on its roster and, second, whether that fourth would be Hill or Ivory, will probably come down to special teams value.

Payton several times referred to "Ivy" when talking about how Ivory has impressed, but the consensus of players is it is better to have a coach noticing you and mispronouncing your name than it is to not have any awareness of you at all. And Ivory said the fact the Saints showed some interest in a kid who had transferred from Washington State in the Pac-10 to Tiffin in the Great Lakes Conference of Division II made a difference to him.

Ivory, a 6-foot, 222-pound Texas native, said he went to Washington State in the first place because he wanted to get away from home. After an injury-plagued three seasons, he was dismissed from the team when he missed a morning practice, he said, but when Dragons Coach David Walkosky, formerly of the Cougars staff, immediately offered Ivory a spot on the Tiffin campus, Washington State tried to get him back.

And at Tiffin he carried just 39 times for 224 yards in five games. Understandably, then, it was more the Saints were willing to give him a shot at all than the team's reputation for keeping undrafted free agents that attracted him to New Orleans. Well, he said, that and the season the Saints had in 2009.

"Just the coach talking to me for that little bit of time made me feel like he was really interested in me coming and to give me that opportunity, " Ivory said, noting he had conversations with Payton and running backs coach Bret Ingalls.

Hill, for his part, needed no such introductions. A four-year letterman in the Big Ten, Hill was the only Badger save Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne to ever gain more than 1,000 yards rushing in his first three seasons.

He impressed at training camp in 2009 after the Saints signed him as a free agent, and he made the practice squad. From there he was claimed by the Eagles, and then in turn the Redskins, before returning to New Orleans in the offseason. He looked good during summer camps and offseason activities, and he has picked up where he left off. On Monday afternoon, for instance, he tore over the right side of the line and polished off the play by lowering his head and basically running over linebacker Jonathan Casillas.

At 5 feet 10 inches and 218 pounds, Hill is a shade less imposing than Ivory but clearly at ease on the gridiron. He appears on the verge of breaking through into active roster status, but his NFL experience thus far has proven that level must be earned twice a day.

"At the end of the day, it's not up to me, " he said. "All I can do is go out there (and) show I'm improving, show I know what I'm doing on the field. It's good to know there are teams out there that know you're out there and know you can play, but I've got to stay in the playbook and just do the things out there that I normally do."

Hill said he's approaching the special teams opportunity with relish.

"I don't care where they put me on the field, " he said. "I feel I can run the ball, and if special teams, if that's a part for me to play, I'll do it. Whatever I can do to contribute to this team winning I'll do it, and as long as I'm on that field it can be wherever they want me."

Reading between the lines, it's clear Hill and Ivory have a wary respect for each other. But it's also true this is a career-making moment for each and they are well aware of both the stakes and the cutthroat nature of the game.

"I wish the best for him, too, " Ivory said. "But I'm not really concentrating on anybody else; I'm just focused on me and trying to prevail in this opportunity I've been given."

Has that taken the fun out of football?

"It's still fun, but when you're trying to make that roster, it's a lot of pressure, " Ivory said. "I won't be satisfied until I see my name when I'm on the roster, when it's set in stone."

Ivory surprising observers in Saints Camp
Story by Vic Carucci/NFL.com

Running back Chris Ivory, an undrafted rookie from Tiffin (Ohio) University, has caught the attention of Payton and other coaches in workouts.

"He's been pretty impressive," Payton said. "I'm anxious to see him in the preseason. He can run and he's physical."

Said Stinchcomb, "He's got good vision and he's got a little extra gear that he can turn on when he needs it. Early impressions are that he's got some tools that'll catch your eye."

The 6-foot, 222-pound Ivory transferred to Tiffin from Washington State, following an assistant coach (Dave Walkosky) who became head coach at Tiffin. But Ivory played only five games in 2009 before suffering a season-ending leg injury. Until that point, he had rushed for 223 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry.

The only other Tiffin player to make it in the NFL is wide receiver Nate Washington, who joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2005. Washington won two Super Bowl rings before joining the Tennessee Titans.

The Saints have a clear affinity for undrafted free-agent halfbacks. Besides Ivory, others who joined the team that way are Pierre Thomas, Lynell Hamilton and P.J. Hill. Bush, the second overall pick in 2006, is the only one drafted on the current roster.