Levine Toilolo always knew he had big shoes to fill. The 6'8" second-year tight end learned a great deal from Tony Gonzalez during his rookie season, and Toilolo's team-first attitude and solid work ethic have certainly been shaped, in part, by Gonzalez's influence. I had the opportunity to sit down with Toilolo and get his thoughts on the transition to being the starter, filling in at tackle, and his perspective on being a part of this Falcons team.
Jeanna Thomas: I'm sure that you've been asked a million times about what it was like to play with Tony Gonzalez and what you learned from him, but I'm curious about what the transition has been like from being the backup to Tony Gonzalez to becoming the premiere tight end on the roster, playing most, if not all, of the offensive snaps.
Levine Toilolo: I think it's gone pretty well. I think last year was kind of the best situation I could have been in as far as making that transition into the NFL. I had a chance to learn, like you said, from Tony and from Coach Scelfo, and then also learned the offense. And so this second year, knowing the offense, understanding the system and being able to just focus on playing the position rather than the playbook has definitely helped with that transition.
JT: A couple of weeks ago against the Vikings, you came in and played tackle, and you performed pretty well. How do you make the mental transition from playing tight end to having to come in and fill in at tackle? That's a difficult position even for guys who play it all the time.
LT: Yeah. I mean, for me, it definitely helped having Jon [Asamoah] next to me, and then I think the coaches did a great job of kind of simplifying protections. I think they probably limited some of the play calling just for assignments. But yeah, the coaches did a great job of drawing things up on the sidelines as far as what to expect and what plays we were looking to call, and then like I said, Jon was kind of there directing me the whole way.
JT: And I know the offensive linemen have said that Mike Tice has placed a real emphasis on communication along the offensive line, so that's something that helped you, also?
LT: Yeah, absolutely. Just like you said, across the board, I think compared to last year, the o-line communicating with the tight end as well has definitely been emphasized, and I think that helps across the board, whether it's in the run game or pass game. A lot of times, as long as we're on the same page, they can kind of pick things up.
JT: What do you see as your offensive strengths?
LT: I think for me, I try to be someone who can do whatever they ask me, so whether it's blocking at the line of scrimmage, at the point, or being in the backfield, being able to pull around or pass protect. And in the passing game, I mean--I like to think I create mismatches, whether it's size-wise or speed-wise, depending on who you're going against. And I think that's something this year I haven't lived up to my own expectations as far as being consistent with that. So I think I'm still working on all of those areas, but I do know, when it comes down to it, I think I try to be a tight end who can do it all.
JT: What do you think you need to do to get more looks in the passing game?
LT: I think for me, just consistency and building that confidence, whether it's with myself or with Matt [Ryan] or with the coaches, just trying to show up every day in practice and making the catches in practice and then having that translate into the game. I think having that confidence across the board would definitely help.
JT: And I see you a lot of times putting in extra work on the jugs machine after practice. So can you just tell me a little bit about your work ethic and how that helps you as a pro?
LT: Yeah, that was one of the big things that Tony did that really left an impression on myself. To see someone late in his career, and someone who arguably is the best tight end to play this game, in my opinion, and just to see the way he approached each day. He had his routine in the weight room as far as getting his body ready before practice, and then he was always, when the defense was up and the offense was off the field, he'd be over there catching balls, coming out of his break. And to see someone of his caliber doing that extra work, I think that should be the least of what I'm doing as far as extra work.
JT: One thing that fans have noticed that comes up a lot when people talk about you--when a teammate makes a play, when they get tackled, you are always the first guy there to help pick them up off the ground. Can you just tell me a little bit about your approach to the game from that perspective?
LT: Yeah, well, our offensive coaches always emphasize finishing--finishing to the ball, whether that's just protecting the ball or protecting your teammate. And for me, any time a play is made, I want to be there to cheer my teammate on and congratulate him and definitely be able to protect him from any other hits. So if I see my teammate getting into it with someone, I want to be there to let him know I have his back. And I love the team here--I love the guys on this team. So I definitely try to be there when I can.