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FALCONS NOTEBOOK: Ex-UGA star Dent ready to make impact for Falcons — every down; Reynolds in battle for starting spot

Don’t be surprised if you see former UGA star LB Akeem Dent in the starting lineup every week this year.

Don’t be surprised if you see former UGA star LB Akeem Dent in the starting lineup every week this year.

Ex-Falcons great Sanders inducted into Atlanta Sports HOF; Former Falcons QB Vick returns to Ga. with message

ATLANTA — Led by Deion Sanders, five people were inducted into the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame this past Saturday at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center.

Sanders played five seasons as a cornerback with the Falcons and 3 1/2 as an outfielder with the Braves, becoming the only athlete to play in a World Series (with the Braves) and a Super Bowl (with the 49ers). The former Florida State star was drafted by the Falcons as the No. 5 overall pick in 1989.

With the Falcons, he intercepted 24 passes and scored 10 touchdowns. In his 14 seasons in the NFL, he intercepted 53 passes and totaled 7,838 all-purpose yards with 22 touchdowns. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.

After two seasons with the Yankees, Sanders signed with the Braves in 1991 and played in 292 games, and he appeared in the World Series in 1992. He finished with a .263 career batting average and had 72 doubles, 43 triples, 39 home runs and 186 stolen bases in his nine-season career.

Sanders was joined by Ronald Bradley, who was one of the country’s winningest boys high school basketball coaches, coaching at seven Georgia schools over 48 seasons; Steve Lundquist, an Atlanta native and Jonesboro High graduate who won the gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke and 400-meter medley relay in 1984 Olympics; the late Earl Mann, the former president, general manager and owner of the Atlanta Crackers; and Homer Rice, a former athletic director at Georgia Tech.

In addition, Tech associate athletic director Wayne Hogan was honored with the 2013 Community Service Award, and Norcross High, which became the first school in GHSA history to win state titles in football, boys basketball and girls basketball in the same academic year, will be honored as the 2013 Star of the Year.

VICK COMES BACK TO GEORGIA: There's something about Milledgeville, NFL quarterbacks from Pennsylvania and controversy.

It would have been hard to predict the havoc the 28th birthday party of Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger in the spring of 2010 would unleash and the national attention it would bring when Roethlisberger was accused of raping a Georgia College female student in a downtown bar.

But Michael Vick was already two years into being a bigger lightning rod after pleading guilty in the early winter of 2008 for felony dog-fighting by the time Roethlisberger brought attention to Baldwin County.

Vick was released after about 21 months in prison, and he began embarking on rehabilitating his image and reputation. That led to his visit last Friday to the Walter B. Williams Jr. Gym on the west side of Milledgeville to talk about his ongoing personal change, a trip hosted by Ebenezer Seventh-day Adventist church as part of a "I Still Have Hope" campaign with attendance falling a little short of the expected 3,300.

John T. Boston II took the stage at 15 minutes after 8 p.m. and preached for about 25 minutes. He followed a song with another short homily before introducing Vick. The message was about second chances and redemption, two topics attached to Vick since dog-fighting allegations sprouted in 2007 and carried through his suspension, resumption of his career and assorted financial problems.

The Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, who will turn 33 today, took to the stage as the crowd jumped to its feet and cheered, cell phones and cameras hoisted above heads to get a picture or video of Vick.

There remained a murmur as Vick spoke.

"Like Pastor Boston said, I'm a guy that has been given a second chance in life," said Vick, who spoke for about seven minutes and did stay for a few ­minutes afterward to mingle and take some pictures. "I know what that second chance is like."

He talked about a personal sense of belief, being around people who would believe in him and taking advantage of first chances.

"Believe in yourself," he said. "Listen to your parents. Listen to the people who care about you. Don't ever stop believing in yourself."

ATLANTA — Linebacker Akeem Dent already has shown he can be a starter for the Falcons. The next step might be proving he's an every-down player.

They are not the same thing anymore. The NFL's emphasis on passing means linebackers have more coverage responsibilities against generally quicker opponents, and not all of them are up to the task.

Dent, the former UGA standout, started at middle linebacker last season, but came off the field when coordinator Mike Nolan sent in an extra defensive back for the "nickel" alignment. But Dent is expected to get a chance to supplant Stephen Nicholas alongside Sean Weatherspoon in the nickel defense in 2013.

"I just have to go out here and not only stop the run and play the run, but also be able to cover these more athletic tight ends," said Dent, the former Douglass High and University of Georgia star.

Tight ends were trouble for the Falcons last season, and they eventually burned the team in the playoffs

In the NFC divisional round, Seahawks tight end Zach Miller totaled 142 yards on eight catches and caught a 3-yard touchdown during Seattle's comeback from 20 points behind in the fourth quarter. In the NFC Championship game, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis caught five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown.

Davis particularly hurt the Falcons during two touchdown drives in the second quarter after the Falcons raced to a 17-0 lead. Davis twice slipped behind Nicholas on the second drive, first for a 19-yard catch for a first down and then on a 4-yard touchdown reception.

The linebackers weren't solely responsible for covering the tight ends, and the running ability of Seattle and San Francisco's quarterbacks complicated things, but the nature of the position means more pass coverage against skilled players.

Weatherspoon said that's especially true with the Falcons.

"With Mike Nolan, it takes being able to cover because we are going to run some man, we are going to run some blitzes," Weatherspoon said. "You have to be able to hold your own on the back end. I think that's the big thing about the NFL where it is today, is make sure you can cover.

"You don't want to be a two-down player because you won't be out there. The league is turning into a passing league. It's tough if you can't cover."

The Falcons didn't select a linebacker during the draft in April. They also haven't signed any veteran free agents at the position during the offseason, so if the roster stays the same, the Falcons will have to get improved pass coverage from their holdover linebackers.

Dent is in line to take advantage of the opportunity. With Weatherspoon and Nicholas absent from OTAs, Dent played in the nickel and dime packages.

"He was the veteran guy," Weatherspoon said. "He's not 'swimming' anymore. He's ready. He's excited about it, and we like where he's going. We look forward to seeing him 'ball out' this year."

It took a while for Dent to get established as the starter last season. It was his biggest role since the Falcons selected him in the third round of the 2011 draft and he struggled early.

Dent said he's glad he got to grow into the role, a process he described as "messing up a play (sometimes), but getting it right most of the time."

"I feel like I've improved," he said. "Right now I feel like I have a better understanding of the game going into my second year of playing a lot of defense. I made some strides, and now I have to keep working."

The Falcons are optimistic Dent can be an every-down player if they need him to be.

"I really thought that his arrow, as the (2012) season was ending, was really going up," Falcons linebacker coach Glenn Pires said. "Our quest with him right now is to keep the arrow going up. That's how we finished the year.

"We're not satisfied and he's not satisfied, but we know that we can improve. He's going in the right direction, and we just have to keep him going in the right direction."


Reynolds one of many Falcons locked in battle for starting spots

ATLANTA — Shortly after the Falcons ended their offseason program Thursday, veteran right guard Garrett Reynolds took a quick nap, and then drove to his hometown.

Before getting ready for another grueling training camp battle in July, Reynolds sought the cocoon of his family and friends.

"I'm just going to try to clear my head and get ready for it," said a relaxed Reynolds on Friday at the Three Ridges Golf Course, where he was taking part in a fundraiser for the Big Brothers, Big Sisters of East Tennessee. "(I plan to) hang out with my family and friends back here in Knoxville. That's really about it."

For the third consecutive year, Reynolds will find himself in a heated competition to win a starting position at right guard. He's the incumbent after winning training camp battles in 2011 and 2012. He was replaced in 2011 by Joe Hawley after seven starts and last season, he was lost to back surgery after making six starts.

In addition to the battles along the offensive line, the Falcons have defensive battles at end, tackle and nickel linebacker, while they also are determined to get rookie first and second round cornerback picks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford ready to play immediately.

After winning the NFC South title and reaching the NFC championship game, the Falcons know they must fill holes along both units in order to remain a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

"This is probably going to be the most competitive camp, position-wise that we've had since our first year here," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "There are certain positions that we obviously know who are going to hold them down, but there are a number that we are not really sure about."

In addition to stabilizing the right guard position, the Falcons must replace dependable starters in center Todd McClure and right tackle Tyson Clabo.

McClure (194 regular-season starts) and Clabo (100) had almost 300 starts for the Falcons. Both have been mainstays under Smith.

Left tackle Sam Baker, left guard Justin Blalock, center Peter Konz, Reynolds and Mike Johnson at right tackle appear set to open training camp as the No. 1 offensive line. Johnson is also being considered for the right guard spot.

Reynolds is battling mainly Johnson, Phillipkeith Manley and Harland Gunn for that starting position.

"Competition breeds success," Reynolds said. "So either way, it's going to make all of us better players and us a better team."

Reynolds is fully recovered from his back surgery that knocked him out of last season.

"I'm 100 percent," Reynolds said. "I didn't have any issues all the way through minicamp and OTAs. I'm really looking forward to training camp."

Reynolds said he has already seen growth in the offensive line as a unit.

"I felt like the guys are starting to (come) together. ... Just getting us together and getting the communication down with our double-teams and just getting a feel for each other, and how we play is key."

If the makeover of the offensive line doesn't work, the Falcons could fall back into the NFC pack against a rugged schedule. If the defense doesn't cover the pass better nor improve its pass rush, they may struggle when playing five games against read-option teams, including Seattle and San Francisco.

Smith and offensive line coaches Paul Dunn and Pat Hill will have only 10 padded practices in training camp to evaluate the offensive line.

"It's very difficult to make a true evaluation when you're not in pads, especially at some of the positions that we are talking about," Smith said.

Smith knows that Reynolds and the players competing for time on the right side of the line will be heavily scrutinized.

"It's going to be interesting to see," Smith said. "Lamar Holmes, Mike Johnson, Joe Hawley and Garrett Reynolds, I think are really competing for those spots on the right side. We've got a center, a starting center, who has played guard for us (so he's a cross-trained player.) Mike Johnson has played guard and tackle for us. We feel really strong about Lamar Holmes, a former third-round draft pick. It's time for these guys to step up and we feel very confident that they well."

The defensive line could feature ends Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann, and tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters. Because defensive line coach Ray Hamilton uses an eight-man rotation, ends Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga could also earn snaps. Peria Jerry, Travian Robertson and Cliff Matthews could buttress the tackle spot.

Umenyiora is being counted on to replace John Abraham, last season's sack leader.

Trufant appears headed for the right cornerback spot, while Alford must beat out Robert McClain at nickel back.