Former California prep star Brian Banks, who was falsely imprisoned for rape after a classmate accused him and later recanted, is trying to reclaim the football career many felt he should’ve had.
FLOWERY BRANCH — After less than a full week of training camp, the Atlanta Falcons are pleasantly surprised by a trio of undrafted prospects.
Coaches report they like what they see from linebacker Joplo Bartu, an undrafted free agent rookie out of Texas State; receiver Martel Moore, an undrafted free agent rookie out of Northern Illinois, and linebacker Brian Banks, an undrafted rookie free agent out of, well, prison.
The Falcons signed Banks as a free agent in April after he visited several other teams in a well-publicized attempt to get back into football after being exonerated and released following five years in prison.
Banks was a great player at Poly High in Long Beach, Calif., who verbally committed to USC in 2002.
But after being falsely accused of rape by a classmate, he opted for a plea bargain of 41 years. He was freed last year after the alleged victim confessed to false testimony.
Banks played for the Arizona team in the UFL last year before the league ceased operation in October. Earlier this year, among the NFL teams he visited was the Seattle Seahawks, where coach Pete Carroll knew Banks from the days he recruited him to USC. But the Seahawks did not sign him.
After OTAs, minicamps and almost a week of training camp with the Falcons, Banks is still a long shot to make the roster, but he is making significant progress, according to linebackers coach Glenn Pires.
“I think he’s taking advantage of the offseason,” Pires said. “He’s progressing well like all of the other young guys. I think he’s going to have the opportunity.”
Pires said he was not surprised by Banks’ play thus far in training camp.
“I think he’s on schedule,” Pires said. “I think that’s the best way I can describe him right now. He had a good offseason. He works hard. He’s very conscientious and ready to compete when we get ready for the preseason games.”
Banks has spent most of his time at middle linebacker, but is also being taught other linebacker positions.
“We are all interchangeable, which is what we do,” Pires said. He believes that Banks is on par with the other rookies who all played college football.
“I think they are all the same,” Pires said. “I don’t want to shortchange any of the young guys. We are all in this together. He’s progressing well, the young guys are progressing well. I think it’s a very healthy situation.”
Meanwhile, Pires expresses cautious optimism for Bartu, too.
“Him along with Brian and (Nick) Clancy, they are progressing well and all working together,” Pires said of Bartu. “That is all going to work itself out down the road.”
Moore has won more of his battles than expected in the one-on-one passing drills early in training camp.
“I’ve got to take it one day at a time,” Moore said. “I have to make the most of any opportunity that I do get. Any group that I go with, the ones, twos or threes, I have to make the most of my opportunities, blocking or catching the ball.”
Moore, 6-0 and 183 pounds, is running his routes fluidly and making great cuts. He helped to lead the Huskies to the Orange Bowl last season. He had 1,083 yards receiving and caught 13 touchdowns for the Mid-American Conference champs.
“I still have to get better and I’m learning from Roddy (White), Harry (Douglas) and Julio (Jones) every day, said Moore, a native of San Antonio, Tex.
Moore ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 and 4.57 seconds March 12 at Northern Illinois’ Pro Day, according to NFL.com’s Gil Brandt. He also had an impressive 35-inch vertical jump.
Rookie cornerback update: Defensive backs coach Joe Danna is charged, along with secondary coach Tim Lewis, with developing rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
“It’s never easy to be a rookie. That’s for sure,” Danna said. “Especially when you’ve got to go against the wide receivers we go against every day. Those guys are competitive. They’ve embraced it. So far, so good.”
Naturally, he expects them to struggle at times.
“That’s a tough position, maybe the toughest of all,” Danna said. “When you’re out there by yourself at times, the task can never be easy.”
Over the past five seasons, the Falcons have started all of their top draft picks early in their careers. They clearly have Trufant and Alford on the same fast track.
“The thing that we can do the most is get them reps, and they’re getting plenty of them right now,” Danna said. “That is definitely not the problem. They go against tough competition every day. So, they are getting challenged.
“There are growing pains there. They have their successes. They have their downfalls, but (we have to) get them the reps, keep teaching them with film and in the classroom.”
Fans attending the open practices have taken to Twitter to blast the rookies when they make a mistake. Danna is not alarmed.
“Sometimes, like any corner, you have to get beat to learn your lessons,” Danna said. “That happens, but they are getting their share of wins too.”
Weatherspoon update: Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who had offseason knee surgery, is fully recovered. He missed portions of the offseason program before participating in the final minicamp.
He hasn’t missed a practice in camp.
“What’s great about Spoon is he’s never satisfied where he’s at. He is improving and he knows the things all the guys look at, what happened last year, and they want to improve,” Pires said. “They know what they want to get better at and that’s what he does well. When he first came in, (he) said, ‘I got to get better at this, get better at that.’”
Pires also said that linebacker Stephen Nicholas, who had offseason sports hernia surgery, is moving well.
WAIT-AND-SEE APPROACH ON BARTU: Linebacker Bartu, an undrafted rookie free agent from Texas State, has turned a few heads.
“I’m real cautious with that because we are waiting for the other color jerseys (opponents) to show up, which will be soon,” Pires said.
Jackson hits 30: Running back Steven Jackson celebrated his 30th birthday on July 22nd. That’s the unofficial age when NFL running backs start to decline, some quicker than others.
“I don’t worry about it at all,” Jackson said. “When you see numbers like that, people are throwing out average scenarios because it’s a trend. As I’ve said, each generation has a running back who breaks the mold and I truly believe I’m that running back in this generation to break the mold.”