Q&A: A pre-training camp chat with Mike Smith

FLOWERY BRANCH – Before training camp opens today, we chatted with Falcons coach Mike Smith, the winningest coach in franchise history, who's determined to rebound from his first losing season.

He was in good spirits during an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He shared some thoughts about the team and gave the fans some key information before things get started today with a closed morning walk-through and an open afternoon practice. 

(Check back later throughout the day as we post stories, notes, blogs and videos on AJC.com from the first day of training camp.)  

Q: How are you all going to make sure that get a rookie like Jake Matthews ready to play?

A: “We’re fast-tracking a lot of these guys. We’re going to give them an opportunity to compete. Jake has been running with the first team since early on in the OTAs and he’s handled it extremely well. I think he’s got the skill set to be very successful offensive tackle. We are going to continue to give him as many reps as we possibly can to get him ready to go and to man that right side offensive tackle position.”

Falcons head coach Mike Smith talks with the media during the minicamp. Atlanta Falcons players workout during the second day of mini-camp at the team's facilities in Flowery Branch, Wednesday, June 18, 2014. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Q: How you all plan to get Ra’Shede Hageman ready for a rotational spot on the defensive line?

A: We really want to have a very deep rotation on the defensive line. Offensive line, basically, barring injury, you put those five guys in and they play the entire game. It’s a different deal on the defensive side. Ra’Shede will be in the rotation. He’ll be a guy that we’ll identify what we feel like he’s strongest at, whether if it’s going to be in our base package or sub package or one of our sub packages. We will focus in those areas. I really believe this, more so than ever, you don’t have 11 starters. You don’t have 12 starters when you talk about the nickel and the linebacker. The way that the snaps can play out, we are going to have 14 or 15 starters on the defensive side. Ra’Shede is a guy that’s going to get the opportunity to compete.

I want to flip back to the offense. It’s going to be an ultra-competitive atmosphere in terms of playing time on both sides of the ball. I think that to determine on offense, who the nine players (along the offensive line) that will be on the 53 (man roster) is going to be very competitive. I think we’ve got 12 or 13 guys that are going to be competing for those nine spots.

On the defensive line with our rotation, we want to be more than one-and-a-half deep. We want to be two-deep across the board and have guys cross-trained. It’s going to be very competitive. We’ve got some guys that have some game-playing experience that are going to be in the mix. More so than any, this is going to be the most competitive camp that we’ve had, especially at those two positions.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith discussing the second and third round picks Friday night during the draft. (D. Orlando Ledbetter/Dledbetter@ajc.com)

Q: How about sizing up the free safety competition?

A: Of course, Dwight Lowery has the most experience. He’s got starts in the NFL. Dez (Southward) is going to an opportunity to compete for that spot. Sean Baker showed some things that we were impressed with and so did Kimario (McFadden). I think we’re set at the strong safety position. But there will be a lot of competition there at the free safety. Right now, going into training camp, Dwight Lowery is listed as our starter.

(He gave us the fans' the injury report here unsolicited. He didn't have to give an official injury report until the Wednesday before the season opener.)

Q: How’s that nickel back completion going to shake out? You have a lot of people stacked at that position?

A: We certainly do. Robert (McClain) played it for us last year. Josh Wilson, who we signed in the offseason and Javier Arenas have experience at the nickel position. I see that being competitive battle as well. Then we also have Ricardo Allen, the rookie that we drafted out of Purdue that has experience at the nickel. As we stated many times, our five defensive back-package, or what some people call sub-defense, plays between 63 to 65 to 68 percent of the time. So, we’ve got to get that solidified. But those guys will have an opportunity to compete for that. Some of them have similar traits, but others have strengths and weaknesses, so it will interesting to watch that battle.

Falcons coach Mike Smith at the NFL scouting combine. (D. Orlando Ledbetter/dledbetter@ajc.com)

To me the competition is the key across the board. I think it’s going to be competitive for roster spots. It’s going to be competitive for starting positions. That brings out the best in everybody. I’m very excited about watching these guys compete and playing the game of football.

You know that OTAs and minicamp are not playing the game of football especially in the lines, offensive and defensive lines. It’s very difficult to get a try evaluation of offensive and defensive linemen when you’re in non-contact practices. Basically, our offseason is non-contact practices.

So, it will be interesting to watch the battles that will take place. A lot of them will be determined by who can play multiple positions. That will be important for us to have guys who can get into a rotation on the defense and inside and outside. It’s going to be important for us on the offense to determine who’s going to be able to play guard and tackle and who’s going to be able to play the center-guard combination as well because you’ve got to have multiple guys that can play center/guard and you have to guys who can play the guard/tackle position.

The Falcons are getting first-round pick Jake Matthews ready to start at right tackle. (Associated Press/Jason Getz)

That to me is going to be a very good battle.

Q: Prince Shembo, how does he fit in the linebacker competition?

A: We’ve got a young group of linebackers. Prince has worked for us both inside and outside in OTAs. I think that he made the adjustment very well to get some reps inside. It’s important for us to have when you start talking about putting your 46-man (game-day) roster together, you’ve got to have guys that can play inside and outside. When you go to the 46, you must have that flexibility. I thought he made a very smooth transition to the inside. We’ll start him as an inside linebacker to start camp, but we will continue to cross-train him because he gives up a lot of multiplicity. He and a number of guys in terms of where they can line up.

Again, I think that’s going to be something that we’ll develop throughout training camp. We will not pigeon-hole guys into certain positions. Some of our other linebackers are going to sometimes line up with their hand in the dirt and sometimes they are going to line up in two-point stances and I think that’s going to create identification issues for the offense.

Q: How has it been with the HBO Hard Knocks’ cameras around?

A: Well, they’ve been here through our minicamp, so it’s nothing new for us. Again, our focus is on putting together the roster. I don’t think it’s going to affect us one bit. We know what our task is and our task is to get these guys prepared. We have to put the best 53 guys together to open the season. I don’t think after a day or two, it’s going to affect the players either. Once we get into the swing of training camp, it’s training camp. We are always under a microscope in this league and I don’t think this (exhibition) season is going to be any different from any other (exhibition) season.”

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Date                                                      Practice Times (public availability)

Tuesday, July 22                                Rookies report

Thursday, July 24                          Veterans report

Friday, July 25                                    Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (open to the public)

Saturday, July 26                              Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (open to the public)

Sunday, July 27                                 Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Monday, July 28                               Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Tuesday, July 29                               Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Wednesday, July 30                        Players’ Day Off (No Media Availability)

Thursday, July 31                              Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Friday, August 1                              “Friday Night Lights” at Archer High School (Lawrenceville)

                                                            6:45 – 9:10 p.m. (open to the public)

Saturday, August 2                          Practice 3:30 – 5:30 p.m. (open to the public)

Sunday, August 3                             Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Monday, August 4                           Combined Practice w/Tennessee  3-5:30 p.m.                                                (open to the public)

Tuesday, August 5                           Players’ Day Off (No Media Availability)

Wednesday, August 6                    Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Thursday, August 7                         Pregame Walkthrough (No Media Availability)

Friday, August 8                                Falcons vs. Miami Dolphins

                                                                Georgia Dome

                                                                7:00 p.m. ET – CW69

 Saturday, August 9                          Practice 4:30 – 5:45 p.m. (open to the public)

 Sunday, August 10                           Players’ Day Off (No Media Availability)

 Monday, August 11                         Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (open to the public)

 Tuesday, August 12                         Practice 10:00 a.m. – 12:35 p.m. (open to the public)

 Wednesday, August 13                 Combined Practice w/ Houston Texans (Houston, TX)

Thursday, August 14                       Combined Practice w/ Houston Texans (Houston, TX)

Friday, August 15                             Pregame Walkthrough (No Media Availability)

Saturday, August 16                        Falcons at Houston Texans

                                                                NRG Stadium

                                                                8:00 p.m. ET – CW69

 Sunday, August 17                           Players’ Day Off (No Media Availability)

Monday, August 18                         Practice 10:15 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. (closed to the public)

                                                                Break Camp


Q&A with Falcons QB T.J. Yates

Falcons to practice with Titans, Texans in training camp

Falcons coach Mike Smith will try to rebound from first losing season on Hard Knocks 

Sam Baker is back to help line re-establish its identity

Falcons WR Roddy White: 'Hard for me to deal with' death of a brother

How much the Falcons rookies will be paid

Rookies getting advice on NFL life

Open competition in training camp will be good for Undrafted Rookies


Sean Weatherspoon suffers season-ending Achilles injury

What's next for Sean Weaatherspoon?

What's next for the Falcons at linebacker?

Javier Arenas gets to watch longtime role model

Falcons cut Szczerba, Yoklic

Falcons minicamp is open to the public


Sean Weatherspoon to miss 2014 season

Matt Ryan on Harry Douglas' contribution to the offense

Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox

Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo

Falcons assistant head coach Terry Robiskie on Devin Hester

Falcons coach Mike Smith on OTAs

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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.