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Camp report: Clark Phillips III makes splash play in front of fans

Intensity rises as defensive backs and receivers face off.  

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Thursday's practice may only be the second practice of 2023 training camp, but the fun has already begun.

The Falcons opened practice to fans on Thursday, and within the first 30 minutes of practice, they were getting a show. The show-stopping moment - and perhaps the biggest moment of the day - came when pass catchers were working in tandem with defensive backs and linebackers one-on-one. To start the first competitive period of practice, the first matchup on the docket was Desmond Ridder and Drake London vs. rookie defensive back Clark Phillips III.


With all eyes on them, London began his route as Ridder dropped back. Staying in step together, London and Phillips battled it out for position, just like they did in college at USC and Utah. Knowing London has quite a few inches on Phillips, Ridder tried to put the ball over the top of Phillips to London's waiting hands and added height. But Phillips had good position, and he got an even better jump. The inches London had on him didn't matter in that moment as Phillips reached up to tip the pass before bringing the ball into his body for the first interception of the day.

The defensive sideline erupted with cheers and a few jabs, to be sure. It wasn't a bad throw by Ridder, nor was it bad positioning by London. It was just that Phillips and his hustle won the rep. It was a good play by the new defensive back.

"It was good to have Clark go after him," head coach Arthur Smith said of the moment. "... Clark didn't back down, and it's good to see. Those are the guys you want around."


Notes, observations from practice

Roll call: After practice, Arthur Smith was asked about the status of Calais Campbell, who the Falcons placed on the NFI list on Tuesday afternoon. He reiterated that Campbell's status is not one the Falcons are worried about, and to "give it 10 days" as he works through it. For the second day in a row, Eddie Goldman was not in attendance at practice. Punter Bradley Pinion was also absent, with Smith saying it was due to a personal matter, again, nothing of concern in the long term.

Updating punt return plans: It's been a while since we've highlighted this specific special teams unit. Since Avery Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury during OTAs, the Falcons have been on the hunt to find their next punt returner. It'll be quite the competition, with six different players lining up to receive punts throughout two different special teams periods on Thursday. Here are the players we saw taking those reps: RB Bijan Robinson, DB Mike Hughes, WR Scotty Miller, WR Penny Hart, DB Dee Alford and WR Zay Malone.

With three preseason games on the schedule, it won't be surprising to see any/all of these players take some preseason reps at punt return as the Falcons zero in on who they want replacing Williams come the start of the 2023 season.

"Ooooh": As noted in the opening paragraphs, fans in attendance at Thursday's practice were able to see quite the performance by the defensive backs. Another moment that received a vocal response from the crowd involved London and Jeff Okudah.

In one of the final 11-on-11 periods, Desmond Ridder tried to go to the endzone to London in single coverage in the front corner. Okudah didn't make it easy on him, though, getting in good position in front of the second-year receiver. Both London and Okudah went up for the jump ball, with both getting their hands on it, but Okudah did enough to come up with the PBU as the ball grazed London's hand, falling away as the duo came to the ground. Chances are it won't take London long to find the other side of that 50/50 ball, but it was Okudah's moment to shine on Thursday.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Drake London #5 runs drills during AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

"Ahhhh": Early in practice, fans got to see the elusiveness of the No. 8 overall pick in action against Jessie Bates III. Though one could argue that Bijan Robinson only won the rep because, well, it was early in practice and it wasn't like everyone was going full speed during that 7-on-7 period. But still, it got the crowd's attention as Ridder dropped it off to Robinson toward the sideline a few yards out from the line of scrimmage. Coming up to put his hands on Robinson to stop the play, Bates approached only to see Robinson plant his foot just off the sideline and juke by him untouched up the field. When the pads go on, perhaps this play ends differently, but it was a moment the fans really liked to see: A little bit of Robinson's elusiveness on display.

Intensity rising: If there's one thing about Arthur Smith you should know, it's that (I think) he enjoys ruffling feathers, and he got London's feathers flapping after the moment we discussed in the opening paragraphs. Essentially, there was some trash talk, with Smith alluding to Utah (Phillips' program) being better than USC (London's alma mater). London snapped back, showing a fire that is usually reserved for London on the field. He may be soft spoken and pretty chill off the field, but it is a different story all together when London puts the helmet on. He wasn't going to let the comment from his coach go without a response. It's nice to see some fire from WR1, even two days into camp and even when that fire is directed at his head coach.

"He's so competitive," Smith said of London, "and that's what endears me to him."

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch during the 2023 AT&T Training Camp.

Splattering of claps: We wrote at length about Kyle Pitts' return to the practice field on Wednesday, but Thursday was the first day the fans got to see the player many of them have bought jerseys of. Pitts was a bit more limited on Thursday, not working as much in the more live periods. However, during the special teams period (when London and Pitts work on a different field with the quarterbacks), Pitts received a bit of applause upon his first catch from Ridder. It felt like a, 'Welcome Back' moment from the fans to Pitts.

Quote of the day: "You're not going to outwork Grady Jarrett." - Arthur Smith

It's just a reminder that Jarrett is the heartbeat of this organization. We'll talk more about this at a later date, but the defensive line feels quite different in 2023 than it has in the last couple years. There are intriguing pieces around Jarrett right now (especially when Campbell makes his return), but you can never overlook Jarrett. He's right there, working alongside David Onyemata in the middle of the defense. Ta'Quon Graham and Timmy Horne have been rotating in with the second-team, and Joe Gaziano has been working in place of Campbell. But don't forget: This is Jarrett's group.

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