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Atlanta Falcons put on the pads for 'Friday Night Lights' at Buford High
Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Jake Matthews (70) works against rookie defensive end Vic Beasley during the team's annual 'Friday Night Lights' on Friday at Tom Riden Stadium in Buford. - photo by John Bazemore | Associated Press

The last time new Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn was at Buford High, he was shopping for talent. On Friday, he was back at Tom Riden Stadium, this time showing off what his new team possesses.

Quinn led the Falcons through a two-hour Friday Night Lights workout at Buford. Rookie wide receiver Justin Hardy, the Falcons’ fourth-round draft pick, caught two touchdown passes from backup quarterback T.J. Yates, and running back Antone Smith starred in team sessions with several big runs.

Quinn, during his tenure as defensive coordinator at the University of Florida, recruited Buford and knew exactly how prolific the Wolves’ program has been. Buford has won three straight state championships and enters this season riding a 40-game winning streak.

“You always want connect with guys who do it best, and Buford is one of those,” Quinn said after the scrimmage. “I have great respect for (Buford coach) Jess Simpson and the program he runs here. That’s really true for this whole area in high school football. There’s just so much pride for it.”

The stadium was packed, with fans lining up along makeshift barriers in front of the stands, clamoring for autographs from Falcons’ stars Julio Jones and Roddy White, among others. The evening began with four paratroopers, three with large American flags

trailing, dropping in at the end of the National Anthem. It ended with a fireworks display that followed Hardy’s second touchdown catch of the night off a back-shoulder throw from Yates as the clock expired on a timed session at the end of the practice.

Simpson, Buford’s coach, was on hand, watching closely from the sidelines as Quinn worked with the defensive line during position drills.

“Anytime you go to a college or a pro practice, you’re enjoying ball,” Simpson said. “If you can take one drill, one nugget, one buzzword, that’s all you’re looking for.”

Buford’s program is always a hot-bed for recruiters. The Wolves’ boasted more than a dozen FBS signees off of last year’s championship squad. Quinn was at Florida in 2011 and 2012 and was a regular at Buford.

“He’s good at talking people into seeing it his way,” Simpson recalled. “He’s a great guy, great demeanor, heck of a ball coach.”

Falcons starting quarterback Matt Ryan played sparingly, but looked sharp orchestrating new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, which featured a variety of toss sweeps and delays, mixed in with play-action passes.

With running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman out, Antone Smith and Jerome Smith got the bulk of the carries. Antone Smith is trying to come back from a broken leg suffered in a November game against the Carolina Panthers last season. He broke off several big runs and drew his coach’s praise.

“It was great to see Tone coming to life,” Quinn said. “For him to have an injury and to come back and battle the way he has to rehab, I was so thrilled for him tonight. I really felt that burst.”

The Falcons open the preseason at home against the Tennessee Titans on Aug. 14.

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