Falcons’ Rowland, Smith try to make HBCU to NFL leap

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons wide receiver Chris Rowland and offensive tackle Kion Smith, the only two players on the 85-man roster from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, are working hard in training camp striving to make the NFL team.

Rowland played at Tennessee State of the Ohio Valley Conference and Smith at Fayetteville State of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Both were signed as undrafted rookies free agents. Rowland was signed in 2020 and spent most of the season on the Falcons’ practice squad. He was called up to the 53-man roster for the final two games last season.

Smith, who helped the Broncos reach three straight CIAA title games, was signed after the 2021 draft.

“I just think that there is talent everywhere,” Smith said. “Everybody has got different stories so they are not able to be at this school or that school. There are ballers everywhere. ... There are definitely some ballers out there. They should definitely look into the HBCUs a lot more.”

Smith, who’s 6-foot-5 and 295-pounds, almost slipped through the recruiting cracks.

“Actually, Fayetteville State was the only school to offer me and it was like two weeks before it was time to report for camp,” Smith said.

With the Falcons resting their starters, Rowland and Smith have received extensive playing time in the exhibition games against Tennessee and Miami.

Rowland had a target and played 27 offensive snaps (50%) and five special teams snaps (19%) against the Titans. He had a punt return for 12 yards and two kickoff returns for 34 yards. Against Miami, he played 20 offensive snaps (39%) and nine on special teams (39%). He had a punt return for 4 yards and a kickoff return of 16 yards.

Smith played left tackle in the second against the Titans for 27 plays (50%) and 22 snaps against the Dolphins (43%).

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“It was nice, just to be out there with all of the other guys,” said Smith, a native of Lumberton, N.C. “Just to get that experience. Not too many people get that where I am from.”

Rowland, who’s 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, was the 2019 Black College Football player of the year and received his award during the Black College Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony Feb. 15, 2020, in Atlanta. Falcons owner Arthur Blank is a financial supporter of the Black College Football Hall of Fame.

While at Tennessee State, Rowland set an HBCU record with 104 receptions in 2019, eclipsing the mark of 103 set by Mississippi Valley State’s Jerry Rice in 1984.

“Knowing that I come from an Historically Black College it does mean a lot when I think about it,” Rowland said. “More than the average guy coming from the SEC or ACC one of those top Division I (conferences). Just being here, carrying the torch is a pleasure. Also, a couple of my former teammates at Tennessee State are around the league.”

During the joint practice with the Dolphins last week, Rowland reconnected with cornerback Terrell Bonds, who also played at Tennessee State. He’s the only player from an HBCU on Miami’s current roster.

Rowland will likely have to beat out rookie Avery Williams for the punt returner spot to make the final cut. Cordarrelle Patterson, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, has the kickoff return job.

“Camp has been going good,” Rowland said. “A lot of ups and downs. Triumphs and Struggles. But overall it’s been a good camp. Coach (Arthur) Smith has preached about effort and executing during practice and everybody is performing to the best of their ability.”

Rowland said last season — during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic — was hectic. He feels more prepared to perform after participating in the offseason program in 2021.

“When you’re timid, you can’t play to the best of your abilities,” Rowland said. “This year coach Smith has done a good job of coming in and getting everybody ready through OTAs and until now. It’s been an easy transition. Just looking back to last year, it’s like man, if I could have had this mindset last year, I would have been alright. It’s been pretty good this year.”

Rowland has been working mostly as the slot receiver.

“I get to sub sometimes at the outside receiver, but returner is the main priority for me when it comes to making this 53-man roster,” Rowland said. “Just knowing my part on the offensive side and just being able to expand on my role.”

Rowland also is excited about Tennessee State, which recently hired former NFL running back Eddie George as coach.

“Rod Reed did a good job these past 10 years at Tennessee State,” Rowland said. “Having Eddie George come in an bring in that really high-powered staff is really impressive. I think it’s something that is much-needed (and will help move) that football program in the right direction. I think it’s a good thing and I’m looking forward to seeing those guys play this season.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Smith played football and threw the shot put and discus in high school. He was earned first-team All-CIAA honors after his junior season in 2019. The Broncos didn’t play last season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He had know idea he’d get a shot at the NFL.

“I really didn’t know,” Smith said. “I would just come in every day, I knew my reason why, so I’d just come in every day and just work.”

The hardest part of Smith is learning the play calls.

“I would just say word play,” Smith said. “We didn’t have as many calls, the long plays. In college we two, three or four words and you only had to listen for one. Now, you have to hear about three or four words and know it. That’s probably the biggest jump.”

Coaching intern Mario Jeberaeel and assistant line coach Chandler Henley help line coach Dwayne Ledford with developing Smith.

“They also work with us collectively and get that extra work in for things that we are lacking or whatever,” Smith said.

The Bow Tie Chronicles

For more content about The Atlanta Falcons

Follow me on Twitter @DOrlandoAJC

On Facebook at Atlanta Falcons News Now

Atlanta Falcons coverage on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Falcons’ 2021 schedule features trip to London, January trip to Buffalo