BUFORD - You might see Falcons linebacker Duke Riley using some new moves this coming year that he picked up in the offseason. His nearly learned leg kick won't be one of them.
"It's hard that's why I love it," said Riley.
The Louisiana State University product is spending time this offseason doing mixed martial arts training at Straight Blast Gym in Buford. The sweat-summoning workout is good training by itself -- Riley usually does his MMA workout right after more traditional training at the Falcons facility. He also sees carry-over from the mat to the football field: fast hands can help dislodge offensive linemen from their blocks, takedowns become tackles and long sparring sessions feel like the most critical moments in a football game.
"[Sparring] reminds me of fourth-and-one, reminds me of goal-line, in the trenches moments, like, now or never, do or die," said Riley. "That's the moments I live for, that's the moments I'm most excited for, the moments you need to make the play, make something happen, you know you're tired, you know the other person is tired. Who's going to break first."
Riley hopes the exhausting workouts will pay dividends in the fall, as he gets ready to build off his rookie season with the Falcons. Riley dealt with a knee injury much of the season, and also saw his playing time dip when he returned from surgery on his knee. He doesn't blame the injury, however, and says a new attitude and new routine will set him up for success.
"I don't want a season like last season," said Riley. "I'm excited. I'm confident, because I'm putting the work in. That's what I didn't do enough of, I didn't put enough work in. That won't be a problem anymore."
Riley's MMA coach is enjoying success of his own. Jared Gooden is a former Berkmar High School athlete who's now excelling in mixed martial arts: he owns the National Fighting Championship title belt in the 170-pound division, which he will defend in an upcoming fight.
"The belt's going to stay here, that's all I can say," Gooden said with a laugh.
Gooden, who uses the nickname "Nite Train" in his fights, says the sport changed his future once he got involved. The 24-year-old says he ran with a bad crowd when he was younger, and channeling his energy into MMA got things turned around.
"I found mixed martial arts, it saved my life," said Gooden. "I promise you it saved my life."
Gooden trains for his own fights, and trains others, like Riley. He teaches classes at Straight Blast Gym in Buford in addition to one-on-one work. The gym's co-owner Jim Sheppard says he thinks Gooden, who has 9 professional MMA wins, has potential to rise to the highest ranks of the sport. Gooden says he's waiting for his chance.
"UFC, Bellatore, whoever calls me first I love to fight, I love to prove I'm the best in the world," said Gooden of two top two mixed martial arts promotions in the country. "Whenever they call and I get my shot, that's what we're waiting on, that's what we're training for."
Riley says he's learning a lot from Gooden. He enjoys trying new skills and challenges on the fly during their training sessions, and feels like fans will see the improvements in his sophomore NFL campaign.
"My hands, my hand-eye coordination, getting guys off me," said Riley. "[Gooden is] doing a great job with me. I'm looking forward to what this work is going to do for me throughout the season."