Russell Gage ‘excited’ for return to playing football

FLOWERY BRANCH -- After practice Thursday, Falcons receiver Russell Gage took the podium for just over five minutes to talk with reporters. He answered questions on his teammates, the new coaching staff and other typical football things that one might hear at a training-camp press conference.

Through the whole time, after going through a two-hour practice in 85-degree Georgia weather, Gage wore a smile that had the rest of the room joining him in his contagious jubilee.

He was happy to be doing what he loved again.

“I’m just excited to be playing football, getting back to football. It’s always exciting,” Gage said. “I love the sport, so any chance I get to play it, no matter what the situation is, I’m always going to be excited to get out there. That’s just how my mind-set is 24/7. I’m going to be excited to play ball.”

The fourth-year receiver from LSU is coming off his career-best season, where he scored four touchdowns, racked up 786 yards on 72 catches and started eight games. He feels like he’s gotten better this offseason, which is a welcomed mind-set as the Falcons look to replace the production of Julio Jones.

As new coach Arthur Smith has stressed during the first week of training camp, they aren’t looking for a player to do what Jones did. Instead, he’s looking for his receivers to be the best they can be.

“Russell is pushing through, and we’re expecting him to have a good year for us,” Smith said Thursday.

Calvin Ridley is expected to join Gage as the starters at receiver. The two work with quarterback Matt Ryan throughout practice, figuring out where each other wants the ball delivered, when to make a cut and who is most capable of making a one-handed grab at the back of the end zone.

On Thursday, as Ridley took a veteran rest day, Gage was the No. 1 receiver and filled the role seamlessly.

“Over my years here I’ve learned a lot,” Gage said. “I’m excited about what I can bring to the table, and I think the coaches are, too.”

Sure, the coaches are excited to see Gage and Ridley work in tandem on the field in what’s expected to be a high-powered offense from Smith. But perhaps where the true excitement from the staff is off the field, where the two veterans, who have played a combined six years in the NFL, can help bring the younger players along.

On that front, Gage said the new talent among the receivers, highlighted by rookie Frank Darby and third-year player Olamide Zaccheaus, are gelling together well.

“We’re jokesters,” Gage said, smiling as he described the receivers. “The chemistry is great. We all love each other, we all feed off each other, we motivate each other. It’s always going to be like that. That’s something that we always have had in this organization and on this team. We always uplift each other and make each other better.”

Gage also noted how getting better was made easier by their quarterback continuing to teach and help the receivers grow.

“Matt does a great job all the time getting us in, settling us down with the new offense, slowing it down for us,” Gage said.

From where he was when he first joined the Falcons in 2018, playing almost exclusively on special teams as Jones, Ridley and Mohammed Sanu held down the offense, Gage continued to buy into the system and do what he could to help his team win. Back then, helping his team meant working with the backup defense, making blocks on kickoff returns and serving as a gunner on punts.

Now, it means being one of the team’s more important and more veteran pass-catchers.

“(My experience to this point) definitely molded me to who I am today, having that work ethic coming from special teams, putting in the extra work after practice,” Gage said. “We’re going to keep it going with rapid fire.”