The following, a new weekly feature of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, allows our reporters to open their notebooks and provide even more information from our local teams that we cover daily. We think you’ll find in informative, insightful and fun.
Hawkins could be odd man out at safety spot
With the free-agent signing of safety Jessie Bates III, Jaylinn Hawkins, who started 16 games last season, could be the odd man out on the Falcons’ starting defense.
Richie Grant, who started all 17 games and was a second-round pick of the Terry Fontenot-Arthur Smith regime, likely will be paired with Bates.
Hawkins is taking a business-like approach to the offseason as he’s about to enter his fourth season in the NFL. He was selected by the Thomas Dimitroff-Dan Quinn regime in the fourth round of the 2020 draft.
“We are just out here working,” Hawkins said after the open OTA session Wednesday. “With the addition of Jessie, it’s been great. It’s good to have a very, very good safety back there and learn from him. We all learn from each other. We are just trying grow every day. It’s good to have a room like that.”
In addition to signing Bates to a four-year, $64 million contract, the Falcons drafted former Alabama safety DeMarcco Hellams in the seventh round of the draft.
The safety group on the 90-man roster also includes Micah Abernathy, Lukas Denis and Clifford Chattman.
The Falcons could elect to play Bates, Grant and Hawkins in a “Big Nickel” package. He also could continue to contribute on special teams. As a starter he played only 49 special-teams snaps last season (12%). In 2021 he played 219 special-teams snaps (62%) and in 2020 he played 154 special-teams snaps (44%).
Hawkins has taken note of the more talented safety group.
“It just allows us to go out there and play to our strengths,” Hawkins said. “(It) allows everyone to do what they do best. Additions to the defense (are) always good. It’s only going to benefit the team.”
Bulldogs hoping for top-10 finish in all-sports ranking
Georgia’s men’s and women’s teams both entered the NCAA track and field championships this week with a long shot’s chance to win the national title. But bringing home that trophy was not what was foremost on the mind of Josh Brooks.
It’s the Learfield Cup that UGA’s athletic director was thinking about. And while the Bulldogs mathematically are out of the running to win the coveted all-sports trophy, they are in position record a rare top-10 finish and possibly finish first among SEC teams.
Much of that depends upon how they fared at the track championships this week in Austin. The Bulldogs’ men’s team entered the meet Thursday ranked No. 3 in the nation, while the Bulldogs women went in at No. 8. The women’s team has finished in the top five nationally in six of the past eight national meets, including winning the title in 2018.
If the Georgia teams perform to their fullest potential, the Bulldogs have a chance not only to finish well within the top five nationally, they also could finish tops among SEC teams.
“I’m tracking it like a hawk,” said Brooks, who keeps a real-time spreadsheet to follow the standings.
The Directors’ Cup is an all-sports measurement of college athletic programs developed as a joint effort between the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) and USA Today. Points are awarded based on each institution’s finish in NCAA championships. Teams like Texas and Ohio State, which field upward of 30 different NCAA sports, typically vie for the top spot in the Learfield. The Longhorns have won the past two.
But Georgia, which fields 20 NCAA-sanctioned sports, occasionally pops up very high in the final standings. The Bulldogs’ best finish is No. 2 in 1999. They were third in 2001 and have finished among the top 10 11 times.
Brooks’ goal for the program is to finish within the top 10 every year. It finished 19th last year.
How Georgia has finished in the IMG Learfield Cup standings: 1994 – 21st. 1995 – 14th. 1996 – 11th. 1997 – 28th. 1998 – seventh. 1999 – second. 2000 – 11th. 2001 – third. 2002 – eighth. 2003 – 15th. 2004 – fifth. 2005 – seventh. 2006 – ninth. 2007 – 12th. 2008 – 10th. 2009 – 18th. 2010 – 20th. 2011 – 20th. 2012 – 18th. 2013 – 10th. 2014 – 16th. 2015 – 14th. 2016 – 15th. 2017 – 15th. 2018 – eighth. 2019 – 21st. 2020 – N/A. 2021 – 10th. 2022 – 19th.
’Going to be like Rocky IV’
Falcons coach Arthur Smith loves the passion he’s seen from new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen.
“I think it’s going to be fun during training camp,” Smith said. “I think if you watch, it’s going to be like Rocky IV: Nielsen versus (Dwayne) Ledford (offensive line coach), going back to their days at N.C. State. They’re both front guys at heart. That’s their passion. All of the people we’ve hired here are passionate in their own way. I don’t want 24 carbon copies of myself. You got to be yourself.
“We hire guys for a reason. Usually because they’re smart, they’re passionate, they’re problem-solvers, they’ve got unbelievable work ethic. So, that’s kind of your compass to find the right coaches. We feel that. We’ve got a lot of great teachers. And (assistant head coach/defense) Jerry (Gray), he does it his own way, but Ryan in his own way is intense. But I’m looking forward to a Nielsen-Ledford training camp.”
Braves reliever Collin McHugh, who grew up in metro Atlanta, acknowledges the franchise’s historic success isn’t lost on its players.
“It can’t hurt the brand to have that as the backbone,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s a (history) of the team that we take seriously here. We want to represent well. There were a lot of people who came before us that did some amazing things for this franchise.”
Ted Turner ‘operated with no fear’
During an interview with the AJC, Craig Barry, EVP and Chief Content Officer at Warner Bros. Discovery Sports (formerly Turner Sports), discussed Ted Turner’s legacy. Turner, 84, put the Braves on TBS 50 years ago, leading to his days in ownership, the Braves becoming a national brand and the best era in franchise history.
“He changed the landscape of our industry, there’s no question about that,” said Barry, who’s been with WBD Sports for nearly three decades. “Obviously from a 24-hour news network where he famously said, ‘We’re coming on today and we’ll go off when the world ends’ – which is still holding true – and to buying these teams and having enough foresight to understand that fandom, and that connection of those communities, and trying to spread that to create a greater affinity for the team in the sport.
“He just operated with no fear. And he was smart enough and had smart enough people around him to take calculated risks. I think he felt like the most important risks were against the grain. He loved being the little guy. He loved being that little engine that could. He loved being the underdog. He loved taking on the giants, no pun intended. He really felt like, from working for him, he really felt like that the highest degree of reward, and the most success, comes from conquering the largest delta, or your largest fears, or when everybody says, ‘Oh, you can’t do it.’ I think that’s the kind of thing that really motivated him.”
-Staff writers Gabe Burns, D. Orlando Ledbetter and Chip Towers contributed to this article.