- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter
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Some guys bond while out fishing. Others connect over beers at a sports bar.
Shooting hoops with retired former teammate Tony Gonzalez is how the 6-foot-8 Toilolo spent one of his days back home in Southern California this summer. The duo stopped by the University of California-Irvine in June after Toilolo returned from organized team activities.
"We were on the same team,’’ Toilolo said of the pickup games. "Did we dominate? Tony did. He’s still got it.’’
Of course, Gonzalez was a two-sport standout at Cal who elected to play football instead of basketball and became the most accomplished tight end in NFL history. The Falcons aren’t asking Toilolo to duplicate Gonzalez’s football success, but it certainly doesn’t hurt for Toilolo to pattern his daily approach after one of the greatest.
"I went by Tony’s house that same day and just got to talk to him,’’ Toilolo said. "He just asked me if I’m getting in my routine with some of the drills he showed me last year as far as getting in and out of my break, focusing on catching the ball. And then, he just talked to me about how something that was big to him was how big the mental part was. He even recommended a book for me to read: Malcolm Gladwell’s 'Outliers.'"
Toilolo hopes to write his own story of success in 2014. His size should be an asset for quarterback Matt Ryan, particularly in the red zone. Last season, as Gonzalez finished tied for fifth in the league with seven red zone touchdowns, two of Toilolo’s 11 catches went for red zone scores. And the red zone already has been an area of emphasis for the Falcons after a rough start there this preseason.
"I don’t know if I’m the answer,’’ Toilolo said with a laugh. "The coaches, that’s their area. Once we really start actually game-planning, we’ll kind of have more things called up.
"I think that’s definitely somewhere -- as an offense, period -- the red zone is somewhere where you want to be really efficient. That’s somewhere we really want to improve, especially with the weapons we have. We can find some mismatches down there. And I’m sure Matt will find the mismatches.’’
Part of the maturation process for Toilolo in his second season is becoming a more reliable target and improving his blocking. It’s been interesting to watch him remain after practice regularly to put in extra work on the Jugs machine.
"As far as for me, my hands have kind of been up and down,’’ Toilolo admitted. "I want to be able to make all the plays. It’s just a matter of focusing each and every play. I want to be automatic, whether it’s in practice or in games.
"And I think that’s something where you build that trust with your quarterback, with the offense, with the coaches in practice by showing them if they come your way, you’re going to make that play. It starts in practice.’’
Ryan appreciates Toilolo’s desire to improve and his willingness to learn from Gonzalez.
"I think it’s a really positive thing for Levine,’’ Ryan said. "Both of those guys developed a good relationship last year working together. And they’re friends. And Tony’s got a wealth of knowledge for Levine to pick at. Levine’s smart. He’s taking advantage of that.
"The other really good thing about it, too, is as a mentor, Tony knows the guys that Levine’s working with, too. He understands how to communicate with me. We’ve done it for a long time. He knows how to get Levine to tap into the best with me because I think Tony did a good job with that. And I’m thankful to Tony that he’s continued to do it.’’
Some guys bond while out fishing. Others connect over beers at a sports bar.For Atlanta Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo, such bonding occurred on the basketball court.