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Air Force graduate Garrett Griffin works to recapture spot with New Orleans Saints

Air Force tight end Garrett Griffin (80) comes up short on a pass during during an NCAA college football game against Utah State, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in Air Force Academy, Colo. Utah State won 52-20.

KENT NISHIMURA/THE GAZETTE

By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: August 2, 2018

NEW ORLEANS (Tribune News Service) — Garrett Griffin’s welcome-to-the-NFL experience occurred in the first week of his rookie season.

The New Orleans Saints opened with the Oakland Raiders and, in preparation, placed an emphasis on blocking linebacker Khalil Mack. Griffin, on the practice squad directly out of Air Force, was assigned to play Mack on the scout team.

So every play Griffin was chipped, blocked, scraped and, in general, targeted by his new teammates.

“I was just trying to make myself useful,” said the tight end, looking over the limbs that took a beating that week. “You definitely gain an appreciation for the type of physicality those guys have.”

Those eye-opening experiences are long in the past. Griffin is in his third camp with the Saints, having logged more than a season and a half on the practice squad before being activated on the 53-man roster for the final five games of the season.

To make the roster again, Griffin will have to emerge from a six-person battle at his position with 15-year veteran Benjamin Watson, Michael Hoomanawanui, Dan Arnold, Josh Hill and rookie Deon Yelder.

If he doesn’t, Griffin’s future with the team would be uncertain. NFL rules prohibit a third season on the practice squad, though there is an allowance if the 53-man roster remains filled.

“It’s early and we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but he’s someone we like and we’re developing,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Griffin’s roster chances.

Griffin arrived in New Orleans under unique circumstances. He graduated the same year that the Secretary of the Navy pulled strings to allow Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds to pursue an NFL spot immediately after exiting the Naval Academy. So the rule went out among all service academies that athletes could turn pro without first serving at least two years of their five-year commitment on active duty, which had been the previous policy.

Then, under a new administration, the old policy was reinstated on the eve of the NFL draft, leaving Air Force’s 2017 class — including wide receiver Jalen Robinette — without a quick road to the pros. But Griffin, like Reynolds, was allowed to continue his professional career because he graduated in the one year it was allowed.

Even had he wanted to serve as a pilot, Griffin would be turned away for medical reasons because of concussions he has sustained.

Griffin serves with the Air Force reserves, logging time recruiting and helping academy applicants in the New Orleans area and spending two weeks at the admissions office in Colorado Springs during the offseason.

As confusing as the non-football side of things has been for Griffin, learning the offense hasn’t been much better.

“It was like redshirting, and I needed the year and a half on the practice squad to adjust and just to learn the offense,” he said. “A pro-style offense is just so big of a difference.

“It’s kind of like the academy where your freshman year is kind of like your rookie year. You’re kind of getting the rite of passage a little bit and learning everything, how to handle things. Each year you come back it’s just more and more experience, and that helps out.”

The Saints, also, have had to adjust. They liked Griffin’s receiving ability that produced 41 catches, 678 yards and eight touchdowns in Air Force’s run-first offense. But that’s not where the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Kansas native has stood out as a pro.

“He has developed, I would say, a little bit differently than we projected,” Payton said. “I feel like he’s a little further along with his ability to block both in the running and passing game and protection and still working as a receiver.

“When he came here, I think our vision initially was that of an athlete that was going to be more of a receiver. But he’s doing well. He’s gotten stronger and his technique has improved.”

Griffin, who lives in New Orleans about five minutes from the Saints practice facility, doesn’t know what will come in training camp, or what options would be available to him if he doesn’t crack the roster. He said the lessons learned at the academy — control what you can control — have helped him through much of the uncertainty he has faced since graduation and will continue to keep him focused on the important things now.

“You can’t really pay attention to that stuff right now,” he said. “Last year I was probably the No. 6 tight end going into camp and ended up getting activated at the end of the year. So you kind of don’t pay attention to it. You just play every day and see what happens.”

STILL A BIT AWED

Air Force graduate Garrett Griffin said it was “a childhood dream” to make his NFL debut last year, catch his first NFL pass and be on the field when the Saints clinched a division title.

And though he’s been teammates with Drew Brees for two full seasons, he still occasionally finds himself enamored with the accomplishments of the quarterback who owns a Super Bowl title and a slew of records. Five of the top eight single-season passing yardage seasons in NFL history belong to Brees, and most of the career records figure to be his by the time he’s finished.

“Every now and then they’ll show some of Drew’s records and statistics and you’ll be like, ‘Wow, I get to play with him,’” Griffin said.

©2018 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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