HOUSTON – Atlanta's Julio Jones gets more than his share of attention, both on the field and from the media covering Super Bowl LI. Understandably, of course, because he's perhaps the best pass catcher in the NFL today.
Fellow wide receiver Mohamed Sanu advises opponents, including the Patriots this Sunday, against trying to guard Jones one-on-one, but his motives may not be entirely selfless. Let's face it, the more defenders who are covering Jones, the fewer available to defend Sanu.
"It's pretty cool having Julio on the other side, drawing the coverage he draws," Sanu smiled. "I make plays whenever the opportunity comes my way."
Chances are, the Patriots will provide Jones with more than one defender, which could leave Sanu to square off with a familiar face – his college teammate and roommate, Logan Ryan.
As we reported on patriots.com last week, Ryan, the Patriots cornerback, and Sanu entered Rutgers as defensive backs. Sanu began as a safety, but soon was asked to move to offense to fill a need on the Scarlet Knights' depth chart. There, Sanu flourished, and he and Ryan found themselves competing against, rather than with one another every day in practices.
When they returned to their suite on campus, the two often shared their dreams of facing each other in the NFL, on football's biggest of stages.
"We talked about it a lot. It's pretty cool to be able to go against him [in Super Bowl LI]," Sanu said this week.
The competition between Ryan and Sanu was intense and varied, the receiver recalled, but always friendly and always with the intent of helping one another improve as players and as people.
"When I went to the other side, we vowed to make each other better. We competed daily with each other. In everything!" he emphasized. "You name it, we competed… Being suitemates, we pushed each other. It just helped us elevate our game, whether on the field or in the classroom. He edged me a little bit in the classroom, but the way we competed helped us."
Whether Ryan can edge Sanu, or vice versa, or if they are matched up against one another at all, remains to be seen. One way or another, though, one friend will leave Houston a champion at the expense of the other. Which could make for a difficult or awkward post-game handshake, one might assume.
"Not difficult at all," Sanu predicted. "I mean, it's going to be fun. Nothing difficult about it. I'm more so excited, because I know the kind of guy he is, the kind of guy I am.
That's part of football. That's why we play this game – to be where we are today."
Ryan, of course, isn't the only Patriots defensive back with a history with Sanu. Safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon also overlapped with him at Rutgers, where they formed a close bond that endures, even though they'll be on-field foes this weekend.
Sanu said McCourty, now a Patriots co-captain, exhibited those same leadership qualities in college.
"He was a big influence on me and a lot of guys. He never said much, but he led by example. When it was time for something to be said, he stepped up. Devin was always the first guy in, last guy out [of the facility], always the first guy in line running, or whatever the case may be.
"Oh, we interacted a lot. Our class was very tight. [Harmon and I] always were around each other, even though we weren't roommates. Still very tight. Very exciting to be able to represent Rutgers the way we are and to have the most players in the Super Bowl [of any college]. It's pretty cool. It's a testament to our school, to the guys that came out of there and all the hard work they put in."
Given how friendly they all still are, and how talented Sanu is, it's not surprising that there was mutual interest between him and the Patriots this past offseason when Sanu left his original club, Cincinnati, via free agency. Sanu admitted that it was tempting to consider an NFL reunion with his college mates, but that he ultimately went to Atlanta, where he felt the fit was better for him.
"I saw the talent, the brotherhood, how tight the [Falcons] team was when I came for a visit. I just wanted to be part of something special. I'm glad I'm here.
"[Signing with New England] was pretty tempting," he acknowledged. "It was definitely thought about, talked about… I always rooted for them, because those are my brothers."
Which will make this Super Bowl all the more special for all of them.
Jones hopes to go toe-to-toe
Even injured, the aforementioned Jones is the most dangerous Falcon on Atlanta's offense. He's been nursing a toe injury that didn't seem to hamper him in the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay, when he caught nine Matt Ryan passes for 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Head coach Dan Quinn held Jones out of last week's practices in Flowery Branch, Ga. (the Falcons' headquarters outside Atlanta), but Jones was back on the field this week and declared himself ready to play Sunday.
"It feels great. I'm good. It feels good. It is what it is, but a good week for anybody just relaxes the body and helps you get back to being healthy. We're going to ramp up practice [this week]. Just going to go back to a normal practice for me. I'm not limited anymore."
That last detail wasn't entirely true, as Jones was officially listed as limited in Wednesday's workout at Rice University here in Houston.
"I'm definitely going full go," he insisted on Thursday morning with the media. "I'm flying around, I don't know about limited."
Super Bowl Week winds down
Thursday was the final day of media access to the Patriots and Falcons. Neither club's players and coaches are required to meet with reporters until after Super Bowl LI on Sunday night. Both teams are now free to focus on themselves and their families and friends, many of whom arrive on Thursday of Super Bowl Week.
"I'm really going to miss you guys," Atlanta QB Matt Ryan joked with the media Thursday. "Typically for us, as it gets later into the week, things start to taper down, and so, that part of it will be real normal. Usually, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays prior to the game are real quiet for myself.
"Obviously, this is what you dream about as a kid," added Ryan, "is playing in a game, playing in this game and winning this game. That's where your thoughts are when you're in your backyard and you're 10 years old and playing with your brothers. That's where it was for me. As I've gotten further along in my career – a few more gray hairs or whatever – I think that you learn what works best for you at handling big situations.
"For me, I feel like my preparation during the week, the way that I prepare, the process that I have allows me to be comfortable in big situations and to just do the things that you've prepared yourself to do. And I feel like that's going to help us out on Sunday."