FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Since Drew Dalman was named the starting center in Week 1, Matt Hennessy has been quietly working for an opportunity to arise for him to make his way back to the starting offensive line.
After one of the most back-and-forth, competitive position battles of the preseason at center, the decision was made to go with Dalman over Hennessy, who started every game in 2021 at the position.
Since then, the Falcons have been cross training Hennessy at center and guard in order to - as Arthur Smith put it on Friday - "build depth and versatility" not just for the Falcons offensive line, but for Hennessy as an individual, too.
For what it's worth, Hennessy is no stranger to the position.
In his rookie year (when Alex Mack was still in Atlanta), Hennessy took a lot of training camp reps at left guard as he battled it out with James Carpenter at the position. At the time, Carpenter beat him out for the starting spot at left guard, but an injury to Mack late in the year brought Hennessy out for his first career start at center.
So, picking up the left guard position again two years later wasn't a huge undertaking for Hennessy.
However, returning to the game field is not something Hennessy has had an open window to do for a while as the Falcons original starting five has played well together. And productively at that. According to our Nerdy Birds report, the Falcons are the first team in NFL history to have four players with over 250 rushing yards through the first eight games of the season.
That's a feat that doesn't happen without this offensive line.
With Dalman at center and Elijah Wilkinson at left guard, the Falcons new starters on the offensive line were pulling their weight and performing well together. That'll change on Sunday, though, as Wilkinson has been ruled out of Week 9's home game against the Chargers. He has a knee injury and did not participate in practice at all this week.
It was interesting, though, to see that it was Hennessy taking the first-team reps at left guard during the periods of practice open to the media this week. That's a shift from what it was earlier in the season when the Falcons faced Seattle. That week saw Wilkinson miss a couple practices plus the game against the Seahawks as he dealt with a personal matter. Atlanta chose to start Colby Gossett at left guard that week, after Gossett battled it out with Chuma Edoga for the position. Gossett played well, too, against Seattle. It was a game in which Cordarrelle Patterson ran for a career-high 141 rushing yards.
According to Hennessy, though, this has been in the works for a while.
"It's something that we've been doing since Drew was named the starter in Week 1," Hennessy said on Friday. "I've been working on position flexibility, playing both guard spots as well. I've chipped away and felt like I've made progress playing guard throughout the last six or seven weeks."
He has a chance to take another step in that progress to return to the field this week. Though Smith wouldn't name Hennessy as the starting left guard on Friday after practice, it does feel like Hennessy is trending in that direction with Wilkinson out.
As Hennessy explained, this is a move he's been preparing to make for weeks at this point. It wasn't a decision that the Falcons came to in the absence of Wilkinson this week.
Hennessy said those weeks were spent regaining a specific muscle memory needed to play the position, and essentially breaking the old muscle memory of playing center. Though only a few inches separate the positions in terms of actual space, it's a different job entirely. There are different steps to make, and different assignments to take note of.
"I've definitely been gaining more comfort there over the last few weeks," Hennessy said. "It's something I'm confident about."
Asked when that confidence really came through for him, Hennessy said it was this week when he got to actually slot in between Dalman and Jake Matthews at practice.
"I think it has to do with chemistry playing between Drew and Jake next to me. Making sure I'm communicating well with them, any kind of combination blocks we have together, having a good awareness of where each other are at," he said. "It's something I'm confident about because we've made progress this week."
Since losing the starting job at center to Dalman in Week 1, a chance to return to the starting offensive line is an opportunity Hennessy hasn't really had. An opportunity potentially stands in front of him now in Week 9.
And if you ask him, he'd be the first to say this is a really important moment for him, personally and professionally.
"It is an exciting opportunity," Hennessy said. "When they named Drew the starter Week 1 I tried to keep my head down and keep working at any way that I could help the team. If that's playing left guard on Sunday I'll be really excited about it. I love being here. I love working with these players and coaches."
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Los Angeles Chargers.