Finding Falcons is a series dedicated to telling the stories of not just the fact that the Falcons decided to draft a specific player, but rather the why behind doing so. Based on exclusive interviews with Falcons position coaches, area scouts and the decision-makers at the top, the Falcons brass details the moments that solidified the decision to draft each of the men who make up their 2023 draft class. For six consecutive weeks, we'll tell those stories.
We've already told the stories of the entire Falcons 2023 NFL Draft picks: Bijan Robinson, Matthew Bergeron, Zach Harrison, Clark Phillips III and DeMarcco Hellams... Well, almost all of the stories. To wrap up the Finding Falcons series we have one more player's story to tell. It's one that sees Atlanta zero in on a player who caught Arthur Smith's eye (and respect): Jovaughn Gwyn.
By: Tori McElhaney
Arthur Smith was only supposed to be South Carolina for a coaching clinic. He wasn't meant to find the Falcons final pick of the 2023 NFL Draft, but that's precisely what happened.
Once the clinic wrapped for the day, the story goes that Smith left for dinner but came back to the Gamecocks' facility well into the eight o'clock hour. The facility had cleared out by that point, groups of coaches likely already well into their own evening dinners or at home in time to tuck the little ones into bed. However, as Smith made his way through the facility, noise arose from the weight room. Inside was a lone player with his head down, working. That player was Jovaughn Gwyn, a four-year starter at right guard for South Carolina.
Gwyn was months away from the draft, and because of his size, he wasn't someone who was really expected by draft analysis to be drafted prior to the six or seventh round. That didn't stop his own work, though. And on that late evening, as he worked out alone and just for himself, he caught the eye of the Falcons head coach.
"(Arthur Smith) really liked that kid," Falcons VP of player personnel Kyle Smith said of the moment.
For Falcons area scout Shepley Heard, who's followed Gwyn's career for years, he doesn't find this tale at all surprising.
"It's not just Arthur saying that," Heard said. "It's not fake with this guy. That's real, and Jovaughn probably had no idea anybody was even around. That player at that school, they said if there's one person that we trust that we want to go into the trenches with, it's Jovaughn."
Gwyn's story goes to show the age old saying holds some truth: You never know who's watching.
Well before Gwyn caught the eyes of Arthur Smith at that South Carolina coaching clinic and even years before Heard first watched Gwyn play for South Carolina, Falcons offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford was on the recruiting trail, actively trying to get Gwyn to come play for him. Ledford was the offensive line coach at NC State at the time, and Gwyn was an accomplished high school lineman in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The story goes (this time) that in one of their final meetings prior to Gwyn making the decision as to where he would take his talents when he entered the college ranks, Ledford wore Gwyn's own jersey to show him how excited he would be to work with him. Ledford laughs at the memory now.
"There's some truth to that," Ledford said. "We'll try a lot of different things in recruiting to grab their attention."
Though it's a humorous footnote in Gwyn's story, it's one that now comes full circle. Ledford may have pulled out the stops on the recruiting trail years ago, but Gwyn ultimately decided to make his way to South Carolina to play for the Gamecocks. There were no hard feelings. This is the way of recruiting: You win some, you lose some. It's fun, though, when you get some back. And that's exactly what has come to pass as Ledford gets the chance to coach Gwyn, just this time, as a professional.
It's interesting, Ledford said, because Gwyn, the man, is still very similar to Gwyn, the kid. He's always been mature beyond his years, even ay 17 years old.
"In high school, he looked like a much older player playing with a lot of younger players," Ledford said.
A man amongst boys, if you will.
So, it was a little exciting when Gwyn's name popped up on the list of players the Falcons scouts gave Ledford to take a look at during the pre-draft evaluation process. And though Gwyn is bigger and stronger than he was when Ledford last watched his film, the foundation of who Gwyn is at his core remained.
"Very strong, physical and you really saw the things you liked about him in high school," Ledford said. "When you turn on the film this year you're not really knowing what to expect... but it was a lot of the same things that you saw in high school."
Namely, what you would have seen (what you always see with Gwyn), is grit.
"It doesn't matter which guys he's going against," Heard said. "He's obviously going against first, second, third round draft picks week in and week out and this guy still stands out. He's not giving up, and he's going to play through the whistle. That type of consistency, it stands out with this guy."
Every February, the Falcons hold one of their many draft meetings. Everyone is in attendance. You're talking area scouts, national scouts, coaches and - of course - the decision-makers at the top. These meetings are pretty tame, with conversations being held about any number of potential draft picks.
When it came to Gwyn, though, Heard said he was a player he was prepared to stand on the table for. Talking to Heard about Gwyn, that comment feels more concrete than abstract. More real than metaphoric. When it came down to it, Heard had no doubt about who Gwyn would be as a professional. It's what he's seen in games and at practices in Columbia for years.
"This guy is the toughest, nastiest, grittiest player. I love the way he plays," Heard said. "The way they talk about him (at South Carolina), it all checks out. You go out to practice and it's just down in, down out, period after period, you're watching this guy and he's not giving up. You can throw on any game and it's going to be the same thing. You what you're going to get with him.
"So, when we're saying, 'Hey, do we want to draft this kid?' I know what we're getting before you bring him in here."
Through the process, Kyle Smith saw it, too.
Measurable-wise Gwyn is shorter, yes, and evaluators could knock him for that. But what Gwyn does have is a grit that the Falcons covet.
"He's shorter, has shorter arms, but that dude is mean and he's nasty," Kyle Smith explained. "He's coming at you so you better buck up. That's how he's wired."
In the end, what brought Gwyn full circle to the Falcons is that gritty wiring.
It's a story that may have began with Ledford sitting in Gwyn's living room, his jersey on his back and Gwyn just a kid at the time, but it continued in a darkened weight room, with Gwyn's work ethic catching the eye of Arthur Smith.
Time and time again, it's that grittiness, that do-the-job-and-do-it-well mentality that has won over key members of the Falcons organization, so much so that their 2023 draft class wasn't complete until Gwyn was in it.