The packed house at Bobby Gruhn Field on Friday is clear indication that the expectations are high for the star-studded 2013 Falcons. It was a competitive day of practice for the team, but the record crowd of 14,250 was the big story.
Eight months ago the Gainesville Red Elephants had one of the more impressive seasons in recent memory. Gainesville made the jump from Class AAA football to Class AAAAA heading into 2012 and conquered one of the most competitive classifications in the state. Despite losing three games in the regular season, quarterback DeShaun Watson and the team rallied were driven by a historic playoff run. Watson was one of the several Gainesville players that were ball boys during the scrimmage and he got to chat and take pictures with Falcons QB Matt Ryan.
Excitement has spilled over into this season, and hosting the Falcons was the next big event for this football hungry community.This was the eighth year that the Falcons have done their annual Friday Night Lights scrimmage and this was the biggest turnout to date.
The gates opened at 6:00pm for the 6:45pm start of practice and thousands were lined up beforehand. Bobby Gruhn Field was in NFL condition with a perfectly groomed field complete with the Falcons logo and "RISE UP" painted in the end zones. The crowd cheered on the practice and the players thrived off the energy, much like they do in the Georgia Dome on game day.
"I think it is very important to change it up for the players and for the coaches and get back to our roots," said head coach Mike Smith. "There is nothing like playing on Friday nights."
Tony Gonzalez was excused for family reasons, but the rest of the roster was present. The night started with a long warmup and practice, and the scrimmage finally gave the fans what they have been waiting for since January, tackling.
"This was probably the longest practice session we have had this offseason," admitted Smith.
The team put on a show and many under the radar players were able to rise to the occasion. Smith says that the linebackers, secondary and offensive line are still in an open competition and in terms of roster positions the battles equally intense. Backup left tackle Terren Jones is a rookie out of Alabama State. Jones saw his reps during the team drills and dominated the rookie defensive ends for much of the night. The 6-foot-7 backup has come a long way since mini-camp.
Joplo Bartu is going to have a big preseason ahead of him as one of the main guys providing depth to the thin linebacking corps. Bartu is a rookie from Texas State and will get a lot of reps in the preseason. This scrimmage was very controlled and fundamentally based in order to avoid injury and the rookie impressed by passing the cognitive test. Being in position to make the play is what the coaching staff was looking for and Bartu did a great job.
The Falcons enter 2013 with five straight winning seasons under their belt, and the chance to continue seeing history be made in the franchise was reason enough for the Falcons' faithful to come out. Dating back to realignment in 2002, the NFC South is the only division in the League that has not had a team win the division two years in a row.
Keeping his players healthy for week 1 against the division rival Saints is the number one priority for Smith. The team has been working hard all offseason and will finally get to line up against some opposition this week when the Bengals come to Flowery Branch for combined practice. The thousands of fans that came out were given a glimpse at the Super Bowl hopeful Falcons and welcomed them into their storied varsity stadium.