A year ago, Joplo Bartu was one of those rookies you hear about whose head is swimming. A college free agent, he was possibly the only person that saw himself making the 53-man roster out of training camp. A full season and 13 starts later and Bartu is getting comfortable at linebacker for the Falcons and quickly becoming a reliable presence on the defense.
Bartu, who played mostly as a strongside linebacker last season, is being asked to move inside beside fellow second-year 'backer Paul Worrilow. Bartu said that's a change, but nothing so drastic that it's slowing him down. Playing off the line of scrimmage gives Bartu more room to roam around, and the lanky, athletic linebacker enjoys the freedom. Otherwise, the only thing that's changed for Bartu is he now has a starting job to lose instead of win.
The benefits of playing time last year has given Bartu the comfort he needs to continue to play well. Despite a role change, Bartu says Mike Nolan's defense isn't drastically different from last season and the learning curve is much less drastic this year.
"I'm comfortable now," Bartu said. "We've been doing these plays for so long. We've got everything installed and I'm very comfortable now."
Instead of leaning on veterans like Sean Weatherspoon like they did last year, Bartu and Worrilow are being forced into more prominent roles not just among the linebackers, but on the defense as well. With Weatherspoon out for the season, Bartu and Worrilow have found themselves answering a lot of questions.
"We've just got to step up leaders and as a linebacker corp, we've got to step up," Bartu said. "Paul's a great leader and we're trying to help these rookies come along because just last year we were in their place."
While 2013 is now a distant memory, one thing sticks with Bartu about last year: a successful franchise suddenly stopped winning. He takes that personally and he's on a mission, on the inside with Worrilow, to get things turned around quickly.
"(I) most definitely (take it personally)," Bartu said. "Last year didn't go the way we wanted it to, but this year we've got a year under our belts and we're looking to improve and redeem ourselves from the year before."