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Saints convinced California practices will pay dividends

OXNARD, Calif. -- The New Orleans Saints have turned a week on the California coast into the minicamp they never got.

The Saints used their six-day sojourn away from the Louisiana humidity to hold long, intensive practices in Oxnard, forcing players to focus on their work by removing them from home. The coaching staff is using the extra time to install everything that would normally get done during pre-training camp workouts, trying to make up for the work lost to the NFL lockout.

"We're getting great work done while we're here," quarterback Drew Brees said Friday. "We're pretty sore at this stage ... and I think it's safe to say we accomplished what we hoped to accomplish by coming here. We're really able to focus on the important details. We wanted to get out here, finish our installations and maximize our reps. We wanted to be on grass, which is easier on the bodies, and we wanted to hit and have some really physical practices."

Brees and coach Sean Payton already see significant progress this week, particularly in the Saints' newcomers and rookies. New Orleans' one-sided loss to the Houston Texans in last weekend's exhibition game before the trip also caught the attention of Payton's players, keeping them focused on this week of work.

"It's just different, because we don't have all those spring practices this year," Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. "We've got to pick the right 53 (players for the roster) ... so this has been really neat. It reminds me of the days when we'd train off-site with the Oilers, out in central Texas. It brings that whole other focus to the practices for them, and it's been kind of good timing for our team."

The Saints also have been pleasantly surprised by the robust fan turnout in Ventura County. Hundreds of fans have packed the sidelines and bleachers for every workout, screaming for autographs and chanting Brees' name. The players realize New Orleans' national profile has grown since its Super Bowl victory following the 2009 season, but many fans in the NFL-starved Los Angeles area are just interested in seeing professional football players.

"This is exactly what I thought it would be like," Payton said, praising 50 volunteers who do everything from cutting grass to working security in Oxnard. "This is a close-knit community, a real prideful community. You have passionate fans here."

Payton scoped out the Oxnard complex, with its residential hotel and two well-tended practice fields abutting a golf course, during his trips here as an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys in 2004 and 2005.

"To come to a different region and see so many Saints fans is just amazing," Payton said. "They're all NFL fans, and I think it's good for our players to see it. ... We have a unique fan base. There's really nothing to compare it to."

The Saints will wrap up their week in Oxnard on Saturday with a walkthrough before flying to Oakland for Sunday's exhibition game against the Raiders. The third exhibition game typically is the most important for an NFL team's starters, and Brees is confident the Saints will show what they've learned in California.

"It's just a level of pride on this team," Brees said. "There's no such thing as an unimportant game."

Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis missed practice Friday to rest a right shoulder injury that Payton described as "nothing serious," while safety Roman Harper missed workouts after breaking the ring finger on his left hand Thursday. Neither is likely to play against the Raiders, but Williams believes their replacements will benefit from extra work.

"We made a lot of great strides with a lot of guys this week," Williams said. "I was impressed with the way we were able to pack up and move the entire franchise. It's been a great experience for us, and hopefully we'll see the benefits for a long time to come."

Notes: Mitch King is likely to replace Ellis, while Jonathon Amaya probably will get Harper's spot. ... Defensive end Junior Galette returned to practice. ... The Saints' two first-round draft picks have been putting in a little extra work in Oxnard. After defensive lineman Cameron Jordan carried the pads and helmets of his fellow linemen off the field on Thursday, Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mark Ingram did the same for his veteran counterparts in the New Orleans backfield Friday. Both first-round picks endured their rookie hazing with a smile.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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