For Rico Council to take full advantage of his NFL opportunity, he knows he must be a special rookie. Literally.
The former Howard High and Tennessee State star linebacker has been told repeatedly by coaches and veteran teammates that his best shot of earning a spot on the Atlanta Falcons roster is by becoming a playmaker on special teams.
"I'll do whatever I have to to make this team," said Council, who was the Ohio Valley Conference co-defensive player of the year last season. "I know that means playing special teams first, because that's just how the young guys earn a spot. My goal is to get on one of the special teams, because once you make that, you can work your way onto the field on defense. I've got to find a role and get some reps.
"It's always been a dream of mine to play in the NFL. I grew up a Falcons fan, so this is a great opportunity for me."
The 6-foot-1, 255-pound Council got his first glimpse of work against NFL competition Monday during the team's combined workout with the Titans at Coahulla Creek. The Falcons open the preseason against Baltimore tonight at 7:30 at the Georgia Dome.
Council is listed a third-team outside linebacker along with fellow rookie free agent Max Gruder, behind starter Sean Weatherspoon and Robert James.
Weatherspoon, a first-round pick in 2010 out of Missouri, said he has reminded Council that whether an early draft pick or a free agent, catching the coaches' eyes on special teams is the only sure way of making the roster.
"He has to keep showing up on tape," Weatherspoon said after Monday's workout. "I told him his job is to make it hard for them to let you go - that's the secret. Just keep showing up on film making plays anywhere on the field.
"I was a first-round draft choice, and my rookie year my snaps came on the punt team. Rico or any young linebacker in this league has to know that special teams is the best way to make a roster."
Council led TSU last year with 87 tackles. He showed up in virtually every other defensive category as well, with 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one interception, 11 passes defensed, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. But the competition he saw in college doesn't match the NFL.
"The speed of the game is the biggest eye-opener," Council said. "I learned real quick that everybody can play, so besides talent you have to give your best effort and go hard on every play. The linemen here are faster than the backs in college a lot of times. You have to play fast every play."
That adjustment to the game speed and finding ways to get noticed on kickoff and punt coverage will determine whether Council survives when roster cuts begin.
"Well, Rico has worked very hard, so we have noticed that right off," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "Of course, he played in the OVC at TSU, so the first thing is to adjust to the speed at this level. He needs to impress the coaches on special teams, because that's how a guy like that is going to make our team."