FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Atlanta Falcons linebacker Akeem Dent has not benefited much from continuity over the last four years of his career.
Starting with the much maligned defensive coordinator Willie Martinez at the University of Georgia, Dent is on his fourth defensive coordinator in four years and along with musical coaches he’s also had to play musical schemes.
Dent transitioned from Martinez’s 4-3 to Todd Grantham’s 3-4 at Georgia then back to a 4-3 as a rookie in Atlanta with Brian VanGorder (who, like Martinez, was maligned by his share of Falcons fans for his perceived passivity). Now, with Mike Nolan in charge of the defense, there’s a chance the Falcons will be more multiple and that Dent, as he battles it out for a starting linebacker job, might have to learn some elements of a 3-4.
“It’s all part of the game,” said Dent, an Atlanta native, of the coaching changes. “It’s all the business. It’s being able to adjust to different schemes and different packages and things that each coach brings. Just different assets, different values to the game.”
Some might have been surprised when the Falcons selected Dent last year in the third round, as they already possessed a young starting middle linebacker in Curtis Lofton. But running an NFL team is all about planning for succession and with Lofton hitting the open market this past March, the Falcons could not afford to match what he could get under their cap, having committed dollars elsewhere.
Enter Dent and veteran Lofa Tatupu, a one-time All-Pro with Seattle who did not play last season. Their battle for Lofton’s old spot will be one of the most watched and competitive of training camp.
Last season, Dent didn’t have much of a prayer to get in a game on defense in meaningful situations. Not only was Lofton entrenched at his spot – as was 2010 first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon at the weak side spot and the combo of Stephen Nicholas and Mike Peterson at the strong side – but the NFL lockout left him little time to learn the scheme.
“He always felt like he was behind because we didn’t have that foundation,” linebackers coach Glenn Pires said. “That’s why I always tell my guys, the foundation of the June and the May, he came along as the season was going and he was kind of catching up and I thought he was being more comfortable, but it’s starting to show now in the offseason.”
Pires described Dent as diligent, detailed and conscientious. NFL coaches and players often talk about the game slowing down for defensive players so they can “play fast.” Dent appears to be on that track.
“Now he has the explosiveness to make the play,” Pires said.
Most of last season, Dent won acclaim from coaches for his play on special teams — he posted a forced fumble in an Oct. 23 win at Detroit – but had to learn his apprenticeship at linebacker in the meeting room. He played some at the end of the season on defense in blow-out games, earning his only tackle on Dec. 15 against Jacksonville.
If he can blossom into a starter and a productive performer, he will become that rare player who attends high school, college and plays professionally all within the same region. At Dent’s same position, Keith Brooking did it with the Falcons for 11 seasons, going from East Coweta High in Senoia, Ga., to Georgia Tech before joining the Falcons. Dent played his high school ball at Atlanta Douglass.
Dent said “of course” he grew up a Falcons fan.
“It’s been great,” he said. “The main thing about it is I still have my family and support system and, being a Georgia alum, I also still have those guys down there seeking help and talking to me and things like that and keeping me level-headed and keeping me on the right path.”
Falcons head coach Mike Smith, who played Dent’s position himself and coached it with the Baltimore Ravens, said Dent must prove he is one of the team’s three best linebackers in training camp to earn that spot. Interestingly, he’s getting help on the field and in the meeting room from Tatupu, his main competition, which Pires said is a positive dynamic. Dent has also gotten more reps during OTAs with Nicholas still out because of an ankle injury he suffered late last season.
“He’s familiar with what we do schematically in terms of how we put our practices together,” Smith said. “There is some new learning in terms of what we do defensively a little bit differently, but he’s on an even playing (field) with the rest of the guys because they’re in the same situation. Akeem did a very good job for us on special teams and the next step is to get him up to speed and give him an opportunity to compete for one of those linebacker spots and he will.”