Duckett ready to carry the load

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Once the nominal front half of a weather-related nickname for the Atlanta Falcons' tailback tandem that includes both himself and jitterbug runner Warrick Dunn, it is appropriate that T.J. Duckett, in a week marked by a monsoon-like downpour at camp, has become both Thunder and Enlightening.

Oh, sure, entering his third season, the 2002 first-round draft choice remains potentially one of the NFL's most bruising runners. But in discussing over the weekend his intention to transform potential into production this year, and to become a viable force in the club's new offense, Duckett was insightful, contemplative, and, at times, introspective.

No one should confuse Duckett's soft-spoken manner for lack of passion. His desire to excel might not burn as an open flame, but there is deceptive and smoldering bonfire beneath the surface, and anyone who invests some time digging to his core comes away with a feel for what makes him tick.

For now, though, it's Duckett who realizes the clock is ticking. He hasn't squandered his talents, he suggested, but hasn't quite collected full dividend, either. So he feels like it's time to cash in before the Falcons start thinking about packing it in with him.

"Things have been OK my first two years but, with where I was picked and what I feel I'm supposed to be doing, well, I'm supposed to be better than just OK," acknowledged Duckett, the 18th overall player chosen in the '02 draft. "You're not supposed to settle for (mediocre). Honestly, I've been a little disappointed in myself. I don't want to look back on this year and be disappointed again. It's time to turn it up. I think this is probably the most aggressive I've ever been in getting ready for a season."

If things go the way Duckett hopes, opposition defensive coordinators will have to invest considerable time getting ready for him.

Toward that end, Duckett, 23, undertook over the past five weeks the most demanding regimen of his professional career. Shortly after the Falcons concluded their organized offseason program, he flew to San Diego and commenced his own two-a-days with his personal trainer.

Duckett concentrated on burst, long running and stamina, and not until four days before he reported here for camp did he conclude a program designed to move him beyond being merely a serviceable back. The result: Duckett reported to camp at a relatively svelte 250 pounds, 16 pounds less than he weighed on the first day of camp a year ago. And having shed some extra tonnage, Duckett insisted he is poised to unburden himself of the failed expectations of his first couple seasons.

Even sharing the tailback duties with Dunn, there is no reason, Duckett believes, that he can't match his career rushing total of 1,286 yards this season alone. And Dunn, who probably will be utilized a bit differently by the new staff, agrees.

"He really seems focused," Dunn allowed. "Like this is going to be his year."

There is, for sure, an undeniably newfound maturity in Duckett, who is battling through some tendinitis in his knee, but is determined to not let it affect his preparation for the coming season. Coach Jim Mora will closely monitor the knee, and order Duckett to sit out a practice from time to time, but the tailback doesn't want to be overly coddled by the coaching or medical staffs.

That, too, is an indication of his enhanced maturity and upgraded work ethic.

The former Michigan State star has always been a bit enigmatic. He is a big man who speaks softly, his answers sometimes interrupted with pauses that are more provocative than prickly. A guy who idolizes big backs like Jim Brown and Jerome Bettis and Earl Campbell, but goes to great pains to note that he is a tailback, not a fullback. A power-type runner in terms of physical proportion, but still blessed with quick feet, and capable of turning up the "stretch play" off-tackle, blasting through an overmatched cornerback, and rumbling for 40 yards.

When a reporter noted that, after a long run, Duckett too often in the past looked winded, and typically followed up the big play with a lot of short gains or minus-yardage efforts, he agreed. There ensued a discussion, a monologue at times, devoted to the need for more consistency, and heightened staying power.

The latter component is one with which Duckett is familiar. He lost his mother when he was in high school, saw his older brother Tico's NFL career curtailed by a variety of elements, and was the victim of an ugly racially motivated assault after the 2002 NFL draft. Yet versus odds that were sometimes stacked against him, Duckett prevailed, and now aspires to do more.

Certainly, the new blocking scheme, featuring the notorious cut-and-chop techniques of legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, will provide Duckett the opportunity to put up impressive numbers. It is a scheme in which the runner reads the hole from inside to outside, where he can make a decision and then plant and go, and Duckett has already grown fond of some of the inside zone-blocked plays.

"This kind of running," he said, "is my kind of running. It fits me really good. I love what we're doing so far. I love what I'm seeing in this offense."

What remains to be seen is how offensive coordinator Greg Knapp doles out carries, who gets the most prominent workload, how the time-sharing plan is plotted out. Mora was adamant on Sunday that Dunn will not be overused, and that the Falcons will benefit from having the smaller back fresher than he has been late in most recent seasons.

One thing that Falcons fans will not see, with the exception of few special formations, is Duckett and Dunn sharing the backfield. Neither is a good enough blocker and coaches feel second-year tailback Justin Griffith will emerge as a very nice fit in whatever the club is calling its spin-off of the West Coast model.

There have been hints that the Falcons want Duckett to be the guy, which melds well with his own plans. At times, some observers have mistaken Duckett's acceptance of the way things are for apathy, and that's a poor read on their part. Conscious, though, that he has perhaps been too compliant in the past, Duckett is ready for a meatier role.

"I want it as much as they want to give it to me," Duckett said. "I want the coaches to be confident that, if I carry the ball 20-25 times, we're going to make something really good happen. I can just feel it."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.