FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- With not even 50 games played at tight end under his belt in his career as a football player, Austin Hooper attacked the offseason with a mindset dedicated to mastering his craft.
After playing quarterback during his freshman and sophomore year at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., Hooper switched to defensive end – the position he played his final two seasons.
Hooper was recruited to play tight end at Stanford University where he played just two seasons at before declaring for the NFL Draft. In his two years at Stanford, Hooper caught 74 passes for 937 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
The Falcons drafted Hooper in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Atlanta's runs a tight end friendly offensive scheme, so Hooper would be used early and often.
Hooper emerged as the Falcons' No. 1 tight end option after Jacob Tamme suffered a season-ending injury.
In his rookie season, Hooper finished the regular season with 19 receptions, 271 yards and three touchdowns for the Falcons. Despite having missed two games with a knee injury, Hooper averaged 14.3 yards per game.
Hooper said he understands the heightened expectations that come with being a key role player on one of the league's top offenses. And to ensure he's ready for the challenge, he joined his quarterback, Matt Ryan, for some offseason work in his home state this spring.
"I understand the offense a lot better," Hooper said. "The combination of timing with Matt [Ryan] and understanding the concepts we are running is allowing me to play at a higher level."
Through one week of training camp practices, Ryan has taken note of the growth Hooper has made and has high hopes for what the tight end will be able to contribute in 2017.
"I think Hoop has done a great job for us," Ryan said. "He played at a high level for us last year as a rookie, and I think having this offseason [for him to] be able to spend time in the facility catch his breath a little bit from that first year, too, and learn from that experience. I think he is going to do great things for us."
Now with a year in the system, Hooper knows the intricacies of the offense and understands the attention his receivers get – and is ready to use that to his advantage.
"You have a guy like Julio (Jones) who demands so much attention, a guy like Taylor Gabriel, a guy like Sanu," Hooper said. "All those guys are so talented it allows me being the tight end the ability to know I'm going to get the teams' possibly second-, third-, fourth-best man-to-man cover guy which allows me to be in a better matchup."
Head coach Dan Quinn often talks about the jump he sees first- and second-year players make, and from what he's seen of Hooper this offseason and in camp, he envisions the tight end being one of those players whose game can get to the next level.
"Hooper has made that transition this offseason," Quinn said. "He's put in a great offseason. Coming back into camp, there are certain routes he [wanted] to work on and certain things in the run game. We're encouraged by where he's headed. He has great guys to go against and battle each day in practice. That's really the only way he's going to get better. We can talk about it here and set some goals, but you've got to put the work in and he's done that."