The sixth day of training camp for the Detroit Lions produced at least two big smiles from former Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford.
One came after a 50-plus yard bomb to former Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson — and a second came when reminded of Georgia’s 15-12 victory over the Yellow Jackets in 2006.
After all, old college rivalries are hard to completely erase — even when you’re now teammates on the same mission.
“We won on a last second touchdown to Mohamed Massaquoi, and a two-point conversion made the three-point margin,” Stafford said, still smiling. “It was a good game; we actually did a good job [on defense] on Calvin. One of the few games that year he didn’t catch a bunch of balls.”
That college game was the last time the two rivals had stepped onto the same competitive football field, until this spring, soon after the Lions made Stafford the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
After tying for an NFL-leading 12 touchdown catches last season, Johnson, Detroit’s first pick in 2007 and the second overall in that draft, could be looking at a career-defining season in 2009, and Stafford soon could be the man lofting the ball downfield into the arms of the streaking 6-foot-5 former Yellow Jacket.
“Once you’re at this level, all that stuff’s in the past,” Johnson said about the heated in-state college rivalry. “You might have bragging rights or whatever, but besides that, there’s nothing really.
“He’s real smart; he’s picking up things real fast,” Johnson added about his new teammate. “You don’t see any frustration level with him. He’s learning real fast, and I like how he’s throwing. We’ll talk about plays if we have a miscommunication or anything like that. We’ll definitely come together and try to figure what’s going on there.”
Fan chatter on Detroit sports radio and around the office water cooler frequently suggests a quarterback controversy in the Lions’ camp. Some say the No. 1 pick should be thrown into battle immediately to see what he can do — and to begin earning his nearly $80 million six-year contract. Some point to the first-year success of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan as just cause.
But the Lions acquired NFL veteran quarterback Daunte Culpepper midway through last season and have 2007 second-round pick Drew Stanton on the depth chart. First-year Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, the former defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, has publicly made it clear Stafford will be worked in slowly.
“Anytime you have a receiver like Calvin Johnson, who has already proven himself in the league, he’s a dynamic player who can make those kinds of plays, you’re going to have good things happen,” Schwartz said. “Right now, it’s honestly not just Matthew [throwing] to Calvin, it’s Drew Stanton to Calvin, it’s Daunte Culpepper to Calvin.
“Obviously, at some point Matthew’s going to be our long-term answer to be quarterbacking this organization, so that is something you look forward to for a lot of years. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves with Matt. He hasn’t taken a snap yet in the NFL.”
That should change Saturday when the Falcons head into Ford Field to open the NFL exhibition season.
“He’s really smart and he’s got a great aptitude for football, he likes being around it,” Schwartz said of Stafford. “He’s really savvy. But NFL defensive players are a different breed.
“Every single guy is fast. The windows close extremely quick. Throws that might look open in college, and that are open, might look open in the NFL and really aren’t. So I think it’s more of that adjustment [he’ll need], and that’s not an overnight thing.”
Schwartz went on to say building that comfort level starts in camp and during exhibition games. He also agreed that players coming in blend better when they can socialize, and part of that is the natural ribbing that takes place over college rivalries and other past connections.
“The only time it ever matters is your Friday afternoon and Saturday night meeting, because it seems like you’ll have a lot of guys that have some friendly wagers,” Schwartz said. “Things like that ... gives them a little break from the grind.
“But once that stuff’s over with, and you go play on Sunday, it doesn’t matter if you went to a Division 3 school or the national champs, everyone’s the same on that NFL field.”
Veteran linebacker Larry Foote, who signed with Detroit after playing on two Super Bowl-winning teams with the Pittsburgh Steelers, said old college rivalries “are good, it breaks the barriers. Some of that rivalry stuff knocks down that wall. Then you can open up a relationship, a bond.”
Both Stafford and Johnson said there’s likely to be a side bet when the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets play in Novemer.
“I’m sure there will be something on the line,” Johnson said. “It will be something embarrassing; maybe wear my Georgia Tech gear all week, or something like that.”
Foote’s tone turned more serious when he added: “Any quarterback coming in here better be making sure that connection is special. Calvin, I’ve never seen anything like him — it’s amazing watching him play, especially going against him [in practice].
“You know, Stafford, you can see right now why he went No. 1. You can see the tools. There’s no doubt about it. And I’m pretty sure every scout around the league has seen it also.
“You wouldn’t want to play against them.”
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