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Atlanta Falcons' Justin Hardy embraces nickname
Team emphasized matchups in first padded practice
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Justin Hardy practices during the team's training camp Thursday, July 28 in Flowery Branch. - photo by David Goldman

FLOWERY BRANCH — Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Justin Hardy didn’t have much say in the matter — most rookies don’t — when coaches started calling him “The Wolf” on special teams last season.

Not much can be done other than just rolling with it. So Hardy embraced it.

“I put a lot of respect behind it, they’re taking the time to actually give me a name with me behind it. So you know, I respect that, and I’ve taken a lot to it,” Hardy said after Saturday’s practice at Flowery Branch.

Hardy couldn’t provide an explanation as to why his teammates called him The Wolf. Perhaps one of the reason’s behind it is Hardy’s tenacity on-and-off the field. Maybe it was his brutal, but effective brick-catching regimen in his younger years that later built a legacy at East Carolina, becoming the FBS record-holder for all-time catches.

"I love the wolf," Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu said of Hardy after Thursday's team practice. "He’s very similar to me, chill, laid back. But the one thing I love about Hardy is he works his tail off."

Hardy caught 21-of-36 targets for 129 yards in 2015 despite grasping a playbook for the first time in his playing career. Hardy is slated to be the No. 3 receiver behind newcomer Sanu.

Hardy’s sure-handed reputation showed during a well executed bootleg in the first-half of practice. Quarterback Matt Ryan rolled to his left and fired on-target to an airborne Hardy, who made the technical grab look almost effortless.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the competition behind Julio Jones and Sanu — one to include Aldrick Robinson — are really “digging hard” at their positions so far at training camp. Jones was limited for the third consecutive day after suffering a minor foot injury on Thursday.

Interestingly enough, wolves are nature's pack-oriented predators, another characteristic that goes well with the recurring mindset of the Falcons' receiving corps.

“Guys are clicking, you know, we support each other, we’re there for each other,’ Hardy said of the group. “All of those things help us have great communication on-and-off the field.”

Quinn and the Falcons’ coaching staff emphasized 1-on-1 matchups as part of the team’s first padded practice. Another dealt with red zone efficiency, an area that was addressed in the final minutes. The Falcons were ranked 21st in scoring last year, averaging 21.2 points per game.

Rookie linebacker De’Vondre Campbell stuffed a run play on 4th-and-goal. On another drive, backup quarterback Matt Schaub hit wideout Devin Fuller inside for a touchdown on a 3-and-9 to end practice on a high note.

“That’s an area we are gonna spend more time in,” Quinn said. “It’s an area we identified in the offseason we wanted to spend more time in. So I was glad to see it come all the way down to it, a fourth-down play, and good battling back-and-forth.”

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman continued to line up in the passing game as well.

“They’re gonna test you in every single way,” Quinn said of Freeman and Coleman. “That’s both Devonta and Tev, and (Terron) Ward to that effect too, he can full-speed cut. And that’s the kind of training we need. We’ve got to go to battle against guys who can play in space. So much of our game is that way now, and when you play zone defense and you’re gonna be in space, you better be able to close and do that with some demeanor.”

Falcons training camp continues Sunday from 10 a.m.-noon. Gates open to the public at 8:30 a.m.

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