FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – When Jason Snelling hit the practice field for the first time as a member of the Atlanta Falcons in 2007, veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli was sure that he was a better runner than Snelling.
Coming out of the University of Virginia, Snelling had played both tailback and fullback and Mughelli, a big free-agent acquisition that year from Baltimore, saw someone who could potentially take plays away from him.
Mughelli was convinced he could run from the tailback spot better than Snelling.
Then he saw Snelling run.
"I was pretty confident in my abilities, but then I saw him run and I said, 'OK, I take it back,' " said Mughelli, one of the league's premier blockers who has but 73 career rushing yards on 23 carries in seven seasons. "It's a joke me and him have. I swore up and down that I was a better runner than he was with the ball in my hands just 'cause in high school I had run tailback and I had been in the league longer.
"He has an uncanny ability not to let the first or the second or the third guy tackle him."
Snelling began to show how much of an asset he can be when Jerious Norwood went out with a head injury last Sunday in a 28-20 win over Carolina. Snelling stepped in with 37 yards on six carries, including the team's season-long run of 20 yards. He also caught a 10-yard touchdown pass.
Quarterback Matt Ryan summed up Snelling's touchdown catch.
"He did a great job of getting yards after contact," Ryan said. "He got hit and he's such a big, physical running back for us, such a great change of pace from Jerious and Mike, he's just another player who can get in there and make plays."
With Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith saying that Norwood is "day to day," Snelling could be in line for a more significant role Sunday at New England.
For someone possibly in line to be a second-string NFL running back, Snelling hardly had the kind of credentials in terms of big-time yards during his college career that would signal what the future might hold for him.
As a sophomore, Snelling had 26 rushes for 189 yards (7.3 per carry). His touches slightly more than doubled as a junior to 58 -- still only about five per game -- for 325 yards.
It was not until his senior year that he really had a chance to run the ball, as he totaled 772 yards -- still only about 70 per game -- on 183 attempts. In all, he accumulated 1,286 yards for his career.
Mughelli referred to the 5-foot-11, 223-pound Snelling as a "tweener." Snelling said playing both fullback and tailback has helped him make the transition to the NFL.
"You've got to get back into the rhythm of running more -- getting your groove back as a running back," he said. "Fortunately, I played a lot of tailback at the tail end of my career in college, so it was an easy transition for me."
Mughelli describes Snelling's running style as "bruising" and "athletic." D.J. Shockley, who joined the Falcons a year before Snelling, describes Snelling as "Boobie" -- Boobie Miles, the real-life running back from the best-selling book "Friday Night Lights" Miles, the team's star runner, was portrayed in the 2004 film of the same name by the actor Derek Luke.
"He's that type of runner -- elusive," Shockley said.
Whereas Norwood brings speed, Snelling brings that elusiveness with power. Last week against Carolina, the Falcons featured Snelling in a play in which Ryan used an unusual behind-the-back handoff out of the shotgun from the Panthers' 8 yard-line.
"We're sticking to the same plan, sticking with the same plays that we know," Snelling said of whether the team would alter its play calls to suit his skills. "We're just going to tweak as we go and I'm going to make plays as they come to me."
In training camp, Snelling was a part of one of the team's more compelling position battles with Thomas Brown. He might have won that battle one the strength of a second preseason game in which he totaled 61 yards on 12 carries against the Rams.
"You've always got to work hard to make the team," Snelling said. "It wasn't a competitive battle necessarily with Thomas. I was competing to be on this team and make plays and be a better football player and I just let everything fall into place."
Snelling knows something about hard work. He said the academics at Virginia taught him about that. He said players are told when they arrive in Charlottesville that they are students first and athletes second and he admitted that the school is not like some factories where football reigns supreme.
At the school founded by Thomas Jefferson, football players must meet requirements higher than NCAA standards to remain eligible and he said that taught him to prioritize his time.
"It's good because it teaches you a work ethic," Snelling said. "… There's no easy way out."
Snelling didn't take the easy way out, earning a degree in forensic anthropology. He said he considered a career as a criminologist until football led him to the NFL. Some day after football, he plans on making use of it.
But for now, his opportunity to make it in the NFL may be widening in front of him.
"I think it's just exciting to sit down there and watch him," Mughelli said. "Watch him spin, watch him break tackles, watch him break away and I think the Falcons fans are going to be real excited to see what [No.] 44 can do."