Tonight at the Georgia Dome, Jordan Beck will hold a similar leadership role with the Atlanta Falcons, only this situation has little in common with playing Division I-AA football in the Great West Conference.
"I'm a little nervous, but I think it's healthy to be a little nervous," Beck said Thursday with a sideways grin. "I'm excited to have this opportunity."
The rookie linebacker realizes that few established NFL veterans worry about making mistakes in an exhibition game, but that approach is poison to rookies.
Not surprisingly, Beck anticipates few carefree moments as the Falcons (2-0 preseason) face the Tennessee Titans (0-1). Injuries to Keith Brooking and Ed Hartwell not only thrust Beck into the starting lineup; he must manage the defensive huddle, too.
"I think I have kind of the general principles down, but as far as the details and being able to react to those details, I'm pretty far from done," said Beck, a third-round draft choice. "Getting the call from the sideline helps me to run the defense, yeah, but that doesn't mean I'm going to run the defense right."
Like fellow draft picks Roddy White, Jonathan Babineaux, Chauncey Davis, Frank Omilaye, Michael Boley and DeAndra Cobb, securing a spot on the 53-man roster is no real concern to Beck. The Falcons project them all filling jobs and playing special teams, though White, who is currently sidelined with a high ankle sprain and will not play, could challenge for a starting job at receiver.
Davis could make his third straight start at left defensive end if Patrick Kerney's strained groin keeps him off the field. Gabe Nyenhuis, who spent all of his rookie year on Jacksonville's practice squad, is likely to start in place of right end Brady Smith.
Beck can take some solace in making his first start for Hartwell at middle linebacker. Ike Reese, an eighth-year veteran, will replace Brooking on the weak side. Demorrio Williams starts for the second time in three games on the strong side.
The starting secondary is finally healthy. Left cornerback DeAngelo Hall, right cornerback Jason Webster, strong safety Keion Carpenter and free safety Bryan Scott will make their debut as a unit. Scott missed the first two games as he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery.
Head coach Jim Mora anticipates that most of the first-team players will work three series, one more than they had in the first two games. He expects borderline players who must perform to earn a roster spot to take up nearly the entire second half.
"You just try to ease their minds a little bit," Mora said. "I don't want them to get anxious about it, but we tell them, 'To just relax. Play as hard as you can. We're looking for great effort. You might make a mistake, but make it full speed. Just go give it your best shot.' "
Training camp officially ended Thursday as veterans were allowed to gather their belongings and leave the on-site condominiums for home.
"The rookies are under lock and key, really, until the first week of the season," Mora said. "Most of the veterans, I'm sure, are getting out of here. Even though our facilities are first-class, they'll want to get home and be with their families."
Regarding White, the Falcons were hopeful he might return next week. The 27th overall draft pick, who turned his right ankle in the fourth quarter of last week's win over Baltimore, was no longer wearing a walking boot.
"It's a good sign, but we'll see," Mora said. "I hope he can (run) for his sake."
Mora and coordinator Ed Donatell have been pleased with what they've seen from Beck, a two-time Great West Conference defensive player of the year, and Boley, a fifth-round pick from Southern Mississippi who earned an identical honor last season in Conference USA.
"Those things helped get us here, but they don't mean much now," Beck said. "For us, the key is to play as hard as we can, both on defense and on special teams. This is only the beginning."