While six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones is working his way back from a foot injury, second-year wide receiver Russell Gage is trying to make the most of the extra practice time that he’s receiving.

In the red-white scrimmage, the speedy Gage got open deep but couldn’t make a diving catch on a slight over-throw by quarterback Matt Ryan on Monday.

“He’s doing really well,” said Raheem Morris, the team’s assistant head coach/passing game coordinator. “He’s really getting a lot of plays with Julio being out of camp right now.

“He’s really stepping up his game getting his mental stuff right. He’s making very few mistakes if any. I’m really pleased with his progress and how he’s going.”

Last season as a rookie, Gage, who was selected in the sixth round out of LSU, played in 15 games and had six catches for 63 yards over 60 offensive snaps. Gage, 6-foot and 184 pounds, did most of his damage on special teams. He was tied for third on the team with seven special teams tackles. He played 280 special teams’ snaps.

Gage wished that he’d hauled down that deep ball from Ryan.

“It’s been going great so far,” Gage said. “My second year, with the playbook really under my belt, I can play a lot faster. I think that’s really been showing throughout the spring and now. My game speed has picked up a lot.”

Ryan didn’t hesitate with trying to connect with Gage.

“Russ is doing a great job for us,” Ryan said. “He’s got a lot more familiarity with what we are doing. He’s a lot more comfortable within the scheme.”

Gage was a versatile offensive threat at LSU as a rusher and receiver.

“I think you can see that in the way that he plays that there is a freedom,” Ryan said. “He’s not thinking so much. He can just go out there and let his talent kind of shine.”

While Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley projected as the Falcons’ top three receivers, Gage could move in the fourth spot ahead of Justin Hardy.

“I’ve been pleased with how he’s done,” Ryan said. “I really expect him to have a bigger role in what we do offensively this year.”

That would be fine with Gage.

“Most definitely, I have a lot with me, a lot of talent and that’s understood,” Gage said. “Push comes to shove and they put me in at crunch time, I’m ready. That’s what I’m out here preparing for. I’ll be ready for sure.”

With Jones out, Gage is trying to make the most of his extra practice time.

“That’s a chance to get better,” Gage said. “Me getting better is just going to help our team in the long run. My time is going to come where I’m going to have to step up and help us win a game or something.”

Gage plans to continue to grow on special teams, too.

“This year, I plan and we plan, to really dominate on special teams,” Gage said. “I’m trying to be the best special teams group in the NFL. So, on offense, I want my role to increase. That’s something that I take upon myself to do whatever I can to contribute to our offense. On special teams, I really plan to dominate and be that guy that really stands out, helps us make plays and win games.”

Specials teams maven Justin Bethel, who was not re-signed, helped Gage last season.

“I was sad to see him go,” Gage said. “But at the same time, I was very thankful. I (called him) right after I found out he was gone. I told him thank you for everything. He really taught me so much.”

When Jones returns, Gage must stay ready.

“The guy that plays behind Julio will get some reps,” Morris said. “Julio won’t be able to play 65 snaps. It just not what we want to do. We want to play full speed reps. Julio wants to be at his best at all times when he’s out there, particularly with the coverage he draws.

“Russell has to be ready to step in and face those same coverages. I’m really fired up about where he’s going to and how he’s progressing.”


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