Austin Hooper ready for bigger role in Falcons offense

Falcons tight end Austin Hooper made a big splash in the season opener Sept. 10.

He had two catches for 128 yards and a touchdown and tossed around Chicago Bears with a vicious stiff-arm.

Things calmed down for him in the next two games, before he caught five of seven targeted passes against Buffalo before the bye week, the team’s most recent game.

With the Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu not expected to play against the Dolphins at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Hooper’s opportunities in the offense will increase.

“He’s come a long way, and he’s somebody that we are going to lean on,” offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said Thursday. “With all of the focus and attention on Devonta (Freeman) and Tevin (Coleman). With all of the focus and attention on Julio (Jones) … and (Taylor) Gabriel, now, all of sudden Austin is getting some real opportunities and some one-on-one scenarios that we need to try to take advantage of.”

Hooper has been targeted 13 times and has 10 catches for 194 yards and a touchdown. But it’s not all about catching passes.

As a tight end, he has to block in the run game and sometimes stay in to help with the pass protection. There’s some dirty work involved.

“He’s doing a great job,” tight end Levine Toilolo said. “It shows as his comfort level grew toward the end of year, and as he (received) more reps, I think he’s become comfortable in the offense. He knows what he’s doing and he’s able to play fast and play more naturally.

“I think he’s shown just the type of player that he can be.”

Hooper is not too worried about his pass receiving numbers.

“Over time the results will come,” he said.

The Buffalo game was big for Hooper because with Jones and Sanu out with injuries in the second half, Ryan had to start coming his way more.

“It was fun to be able to play catch with Matt,” Hooper said. “It was probably the most fun to be able to play catch with Matt. It was probably the most catches that I had in my career in a game.”

Hooper spent some time over the offseason working with Ryan in southern California, but there’s nothing like playing together in live NFL games.

“It was fun to go out there and show Matt what I can do,” Hooper said. “ Show him that I could be in the right spots. Show him that I can get open for him, just the little things to build up his confidence in me. We’ll keep building that in practice and hopefully on game days.”

Ryan likes to utilize the tight end. As a matter of fact, the position is vital to the operation to break up certain zone coverages.

“I think Hoop had done a good job,” Ryan said. “The ball is going to find different guys at different times of the year, depending on where our matchups are. He’s done a nice job for us.”

Ryan senses a breakthrough, too.

“He’s done a good job in the run game,” Ryan said. “A good job in the pass game. He’s going to be productive for us. His time is definitely going to come.”

Credit: David Banks

Credit: David Banks

With the stiff-arms, Hooper, a second-year player from Stanford, picked up some major locker-room credibility, and LRC (Locker-room cred) is important.

“Hoop has been balling,” Jones said. “We are expecting big things out of Hoop this week. Right now, Hoop is having a great week. His preparation is great. He’s catching the ball well. (He’s in great) physical condition, he looks great.”

Hooper, a third-round pick in 2016, had to wait his turn as a rookie last season. After Jacob Tamme was injured and lost for the season, Hooper’s role increased.

He caught 29 passes for 465 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie. In three playoff games, he caught six passes for 65 yards and a touchdown.

“I think Austin has really developed for us,” Sarkisian said. “Obviously, in Week 1 he probably makes two of the biggest plays of the game. Both third-down conversions, one for the touchdown and the other for another big conversion to get points out of a drive.”

Bigger things are expected of Hooper, who’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 254 pounds.

“I think Austin provides a lot of versatility for us at that position with his pass-catching ability, run blocking and the stuff that we do with him in pass protection,” Sarkisian said. “All in all, I think Austin’s best days are still ahead of him. He’s still growing.”

Hooper progress has been noticed by coach Dan Quinn.

“He’s a player that has really been working hard on his connection with Matt on certain routes,” Quinn said. “He was really specific coming off of our break about some of the things that he really wanted to do well. ... We are very encouraged about where he can get to.”

Hooper doesn’t feel any pressure going against a respected Miami defense.

“First of all they are big and physical, and they’ve got guys who can run on the back end,” Hooper said. “The defensive coordinator does a good job of coaching the other guys up in their scheme.”

He’s ready for more action if the passes start coming his way.

“You just have to be ready no matter what,” Hooper said. “Whether we are fully healthy across the board, but if not, you have to step up. You just have to be ready when your opportunity comes.”

The Falcons are counting on him.

“We expect to see big games out of Hoop,” Jones said. “We just move it around. It depends on what the defense is giving us and we just work off of them. (Some teams) were trying to take me away and a lot of times when guys try to take me away, he’s that guy that has an advantage. … Hoop is a guy who can pose matchup problems for a defense.”