FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. On the final day of Atlanta Falcons minicamp on Thursday during team drills, quarterback Matt Ryan stepped back and looked deep to his left. Much to the delight of the fans present, he connected on a dramatic play to wide receiver Julio Jones on what would have been a quick-strike touchdown in a regular season game.
The victim in that scenario was Desmond Trufant, the teams first-round pick in April who could start in that spot as the right corner when the season begins in September. Such was the story during much of offseason team activities and minicamp, as he and Robert Alford, another rookie corner whom the team drafted in the second round, faced a baptism by fire.
For the two cornerbacks, having to go against the likes of Jones and Roddy White, a four-time Pro-Bowler, is an experience the Falcons hope will benefit the rookies.
I mean, they try, said Jones, entering his third season, on Tuesday, but you got two Pro-Bowlers out there, me and Roddy. Weve been in the offense for so long. Just having a great quarterback like Matt Ryan. I mean, it makes it hard for those guys to come right in.
One thing I can say about them is they give effort. They got heart. Thats one thing you cant teach.
That Trufant and Alfords heart and competitive nature -- is the biggest takeaway from these practices with training camp set to start on July 25. They say cornerbacks have to have short memories because at one point or another theyre going to get beat. In regard to Trufant and Alford, so far so good.
This is a great learning experience for both those guys, Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. We want to get them ready to play and the best way to get them ready to play is have them go against good players. And theyre going against two of the best in the league and Harry Douglas is not a bad receiver, as well. Theyre getting their fill. Theyre learning.
The thing I do like is theyre competitors and theyre going to compete. Its going to pay dividends. Theyre going to have a learning lesson every time they go against them.For Falcons fans nervous about the teams Super Bowl aspirations resting on the shoulders of one of two untested players, take heart. When the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in 2011, one of their starting corners was a rookie: Prince Amukamara, selected 19th overall that season. (Trufant was selected 22nd by the Falcons.)
Smith explained why corners can come in and more easily play right away unlike some other positions. Unlike safeties and the third cornerback (the nickel back), the outside corners, for the most part, line up against the receiver they are assigned to defend and, basically, chase him wherever he goes.
I think its really about their athleticism because so much is match-up coverages, Smith said. Theres not a whole lot of vision coverages. Those guys have the skillset that youre looking for in a corner that can match up and play against the wide receivers. Now, theyve got to learn our system, learn our verbiage, know when theyre having help and how were going to play the different coverages.
I think the corner position, the wide receiver position and the running back position are positions that guys can come in and play early especially out on the corner which is more out on an island.
While Trufant missed much of OTAs because of a rule that prevents players from joining the team while their college remains in session, the Falcons clearly did not hold that against him. During minicamp, he played the right corner with the first team while Alford played on the second team at the left corner, a position that tends to see more balls thrown in that direction; the thinking being that most right-handed quarterbacks are going to the throw to their right most of the time.
Trufant spoke about what it was like going up against White and Jones in practice.
They humbled me, to be honest, he said. Theyre big, theyre strong, theyre fast. Theyre just getting me better every day and Im competing with them.
While Trufant played in the Pacific 12 Conference, Alford played in college at Southeast Louisiana, a Football Championship Subdivision school where he did not see NFL-type receivers on a regular basis. However, he did say that Southeast Louisiana played two Football Bowl Subdivision schools each season. Last year, Southeast Louisiana played Missouri and Alabama-Birmingham (Whites alma mater). In other seasons, the school played Tulane and Southern Mississippi.
I wont say there were guys of that quality, Alford said. Each year, we played two Division I teams. So pretty much I was going up against top talent every year. I mean, the only thing about the SEC, they got players that went against the top people every week. Thats the only thing about me -- I didnt get to show my talent against top people every week.
Both players also are learning from getting to watch Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel, a four-time Pro-Bowler and whose 45 interceptions since joining the NFL in 2003 are the second most in the league during that period.
His instincts are off the charts, Trufant said. He plays the ball so well.
Trufant also listed Charles Woodson and his brothers, NFLers Marcus and Isaiah, as players from whom he has tried to learn. The Falcons have counted on Desmond Trufants football IQ --- which comes in part from having brothers play in the NFL -- as one factor that will help him make a relatively smooth transition from college to NFL starter.
With Marcus Trufant playing for Seattle last season and Desmond nearby at the University of Washington, Desmond got to know some of the Seahawks players. Like the All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, who has gained almost as much fame for his mouth as he has for his skills. During the Falcons playoff victory over Seattle last January, Sherman and Roddy White exchanged words and, to an extent, have continued that verbal spat during this offseason. The Falcons and Seahawks are expected to rank among the best in the NFC again in 2013 and will face each other during the regular season.
Sherm, hes actually a cool dude, Desmond Trufant said. You guys know him for what he is. But hes actually a cool guy. Hes gave me a lot of advice. Like I say, I like to use a little from everybody and take it to my advantage.
The Falcons hope that that and the growing pains of offseason practices will turn Trufant, and possibly Alford, into ready-made starters.