This time last year, Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper was glued to his Ipad and FaceTiming coaches while trying to grasp an NFL offense from the west coast.
Much like, first-round draft pick Takk McKinley, Hooper per league ruling had to conclude his final academic semester at Stanford before participating in any Falcons offseason activities, missing the mandatory minicamp sessions as a result.
That distance from Falcons headquarters is now a thing of the past.
Hooper is making the most of this week’s minicamp at Flowery Branch.
“I actually get to be here, so, it’s fun,” quipped Hooper, who following the departure of Jacob Tamme and a breakout rookie season returns as the Falcons’ projected frontrunner at his position.
“I know the plays, I know what’s going on, I have a relationship with the quarterback, and understand stuff. I can understand the defense a lot better, which allows me to play faster. I just feel like a completely different player, just because I get to be here, you know?”
Hooper, who entered the 2016 NFL Combine slightly undersized for a tight end at 6-feet, 4-inches tall and 254 pounds, clearly made up for it with his sure hands and route-running abilities, not to mention his physicality as a former defensive end. A third-round selection by the Falcons, Hooper’s slow start in 2016 was a result of the Stanford product backing up Tamme until Week 8 of the regular season, though burst onto the scene against the Carolina Panthers in Week 4.
A beautifully executed “tight end throwback” in former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme found Hooper wide open for his first-career touchdown catch against an NFC South rival. Hooper, camouflaged as a blocker along the outside zone of the play and undetected by the Panthers defense, re-surfaced near the left sideline and wide open for quarterback Matt Ryan’s long lob off the playaction.
He practically strolled into the end zone as a result.
Flash forward to Week 8, a season-ending shoulder injury pegged Tamme and Hooper emerged as a legitimate receiving threat among an arsenal of weapons — wide receivers Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu; and the running back tandem Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman. He went on to record 19 catches for 271 yards and three touchdowns, while averaging 14.3 yards per reception. His final score came in the form of a 19-yard strike from Ryan during Super Bowl LI to give the Falcons a 14-0 lead.
Hooper said he now feels like a different player and understands the offense at a deeper level given that impressive rookie campaign.
His quarterback, the league’s reigning MVP, took notice too.
“Austin’s a guy who I thought improved a lot last year throughout the season. You could see from where he was at from the beginning of the year to the way he played at the end of the year, down the stretch in the playoffs, it was impressive to see,” said Ryan following Tuesday’s minicamp. “His game has grown exponentially this offseason. I mean, he’s put in the work, he’s worked extremely hard. He’s really diligent about how he’s making sure he’s productive every day, and you can see it on the field. He’s playing like a veteran guy now.”
Hooper pointed out the progress made this week amongst a tight end tandem which includes veteran and fellow Stanford alma mater Levine Toilolo. Last year Hooper, Toilolo, Tamme, Joshua Perkins and even D.J. Tialavea combined to haul in 10 of Ryan’s career-high 38 touchdown passes.
“We have so many guys in our (tight end) room, guys who have made plays throughout this minicamp process, rookies who’ve done a great job,” Hooper said. “(Eric Saubert)’s done a great job, Darion Griswold. I mean, Gris has done great. ...The list goes on. Alex (Gray) didn’t even start playing football until a couple of weeks ago, and he’s already making plays. Our room is contributing a lot every time we hit the grass. So it’s just fun to be a part of.”
Flowery Branch had its fair share of spectators as the gates were open to the fans on Wednesday. In addition to the on-going competition between Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland at right guard on the offensive line, the Falcons put an emphasis on kicking as well as icing the kicker in a two-minute drill toward the end of Wednesday’s walkthrough.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn told reporters the team will focus more on red zone efficiency when they wrap up minicamp today.
“Those are the teaching moments we want to put them under,” Quinn said. “So whether it’s icing the kicker or having to move back after a foul on a field goal, or a penalty on a critical third down against the defense. Those are the ones you don’t script. Right now we gotta see, you know, how are you going to respond to this? That’s what we’re looking for, those little examples of resiliency.”
Ryan thinks Hooper will be a big part of newcomer Steve Sarkisian’s offense that has been known utilize tight ends in the past. Besides that small change, Ryan, coach Quinn and Hooper all indicated they will stick with what works.
Hooper said while the offense is still similar, he recognizes the differences in the coaching demeanor, and likes the positivity Sarkisian brings to the table.
“It’s fun. He makes the offensive meetings real clear, real concise about what we want to do. And just real straightforward about how he wants the offense to go, which is all you can really ask for,” Hooper said.
Of course, whether the Falcons offense can duplicate last year’s regular-season success under Sarkisian remains to be seen. Co-captained by Ryan and Shanahan, Atlanta matched the 2000 St. Louis Rams for seventh in all-time scoring with 540 points.
Hooper, who was part of that wild ride in 2016, now knows what is expected moving forward.
“It’s been an experience. It’s been fun,” Hooper said. “I still got a ways to go with it, but I’m pleased with what I’ve done so far. We’ve just got to keep working.”