ATLANTA – Two years ago, Matt Gono was on his way towards earning First-Team All-American honors at Wesley College, an NCAA Division III school that is a member of the Atlantic East Conference. On Thursday night, Gono made his first career start for the Atlanta Falcons.
It's been a busy couple of years for the 6-foot-4, 305-pound offensive tackle who turned 23 this offseason, but Gono's development has been notable. There were some hiccups for Gono during the Falcons' fourth preseason game, a 19-7 loss to the Washington Redskins, but coach Dan Quinn was overall pleased with his performance at right tackle.
"It felt exactly like I'd hoped it would," Quinn said. "When you're watching a game and watching the guys and it feels real normal as you're going through, and especially at that position, that's what you hope to see."
One week after Matt Ryan was sacked three times and under constant pressure against the New York Jets, the Falcons did not allow any sacks on their starting quarterback and gave up very few hits. Gono did allow one such hit, however, while lined up against Montez Sweat, a first-round draft pick and former All-SEC player.
That was the lone glaring play of the game for Gono, which is a good thing when talking about an offensive lineman. Atlanta kept Gono on its active roster throughout the 2018 season, preventing another team from signing him off its practice squad, and the Falcons invested a lot of time in developing him as a player.
Given the jump in talent Gono faced on Thursday night while lining up against players like Sweat, Ryan Kerrigan and Daron Payne, that work last season appears to have paid dividends.
"There's a big difference from the school I came from," Gono said. "I've been building confidence, especially leading up to this second year."
Gono was given the opportunity to make his first start after Ty Sambrailo was ruled out due to a shoulder injury. Sambrailo entered training camp as the starting right tackle, but he was expected to face plenty of competition from first-round draft pick Kaleb McGary.
After undergoing a cardiac ablation procedure prior to the start of the preseason, though, McGary has been sidelined from all contact-related activities. That procedure created a few questions at right tackle behind Sambrailo, and it also presented an opportunity for Gono.
An opportunity he has tried to make the most of.
"He has really put the work in," Quinn said. "We talk about [Jermaine] Grace, he's another one behind the scenes that has put in the un-seen grind that you guys don't see but his teammates do. We were all looking forward to seeing him play tonight."
No indication has been given that Sambrailo won't keep his starting job when he is once again healthy, and McGary also figures to compete for playing time when he gets the all-clear, but Gono's emergence as a reliable lineman who can play both right and left tackle is a big positive for a team that sought to bolster its depth on the offensive line this offseason.
"I'm feeling a lot more confident in my ability to do different things," Gono said. "I've come a long way."
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