As Adam Vinatieri sent the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI soaring toward rookie Devin Hester, Javier Arenas looked on. Then a high school senior, he watched Hester take the ball 92 yards for a touchdown.
“I used to watch his college highlight tapes,” Arenas said. “As a college punt returner, that’s someone that you idolize.”
Fast forward more than eight years later, and the two sit comfortably beside one another on the Falcons’ special-teams depth chart. The Falcons picked up both Hester and Arenas in March — an attempt to further bolster their kickoff and punt-return averages, which sat at 24.4 and 8.3 in 2013, respectively.
During his senior season at Alabama, Arenas ranked second nationally in punt-return yards and ninth in average yards per kickoff return. That productivity declined after he was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2010, and Atlanta is his third home in five years. As the Falcons wrap up OTAs and welcome minicamp next week, Arenas has the opportunity to improve his craft while working alongside one of the best.
“I think the word ‘honored’ describes it best as far as playing behind him,” Arenas said. “Someone like myself who was very good at it in college … I felt like I need someone to show me the ropes and from that aspect, from a return aspect, who better than him?
“I think as we get into training camp and things like that and actually get into doing punt-return drills, he’ll kind of become a coach to me. He might not even know it.”
Hester is not the only player on the Falcons’ roster with nearly a decade of experience who Arenas will compete against in training camp. Arenas, a cornerback who has had plenty of work at the nickel position, sits behind Josh Wilson at that very spot. During Tuesday’s OTA, Arenas worked primarily with the second unit, getting reps at cornerback and nickel back, while Wilson and third-year corner Robert McClain rotated at nickel with the first team.
“At the nickel position I think that we’re very competitive,” coach Mike Smith said. “Bobby Mac is returning. Josh Wilson has played the nickel; he’s been getting reps for us in that capacity, as well as Javier Arenas. I think there’s three guys that have experience and that have played that position in the game. It’ll be fun to watch them compete in the rest of our OTAs and through training camp.”
Arenas’ one-year contract with the Falcons serves as a source of motivation for a player eager to find a permanent home in the league. As a corner who identifies his strengths as covering in the slot and blitzing well, Arenas said that if he continues to have good practices such as the one he had Tuesday, he can become an asset in the Falcons’ secondary.
“I anticipate my reps will go up,” Arenas said. “And being in this league for five years, that’s something I’ve learned not to think about anymore because it can affect a person’s attitude. I’ve seen a lot of stuff. I’ve seen guys get seldom reps during OTAs and things switch and change during training camp, so I know how it goes.”
With training camp quickly approaching, Arenas’ transition to a new team was eased by two familiar faces: wide receiver Julio Jones and offensive lineman Mike Johnson, former teammates of his at Alabama.
“Though it doesn’t make a difference physically in you going out there earning your position, mentally to know that you have guys that know what you’re capable of and just guys you’ve been in the locker room with before, that’s a great feeling,” Arenas said.
But the familiarities don’t stop there. Arenas won three of four games he played in the Georgia Dome during his college career, which included two Chick-fil-A Kickoff games and two SEC Championship games. He hopes to channel the success he had in Atlanta during his time with the Crimson Tide now that the Dome is home.
Arenas welcomed the idea of coming back to the south with open arms, having grown up in Florida. For Arenas, Atlanta gives him the comfort of being closer to Tampa, Fla., along with the moral support of local Alabama fans.
“This is a place that I will want to make my home. But then I’ve got to go think in detail, “How do I make this my home?” I’ve got to get my work done on the field,” Arenas said. “This is where it starts.”
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