Ja­panese re­ceiver hopes to catch on with At­lanta Fal­cons

Ki­noshita hopes to make NFL

The Covington News - - Sports - By Paul New­berry

FLOWERY BRANCH — No­ri­aki Ki­noshita trudged off the prac­tice field and dropped to one knee, the sweat flow­ing on a blis­ter­ing Ge­or­gia day.

If there was ever a time to re­con­sider what he’s got­ten him­self into, this was it.

But not even a gru­el­ing prac­tice in tem­per­a­tures creep­ing to­ward 100 de­grees was enough to make Ki­noshita lose sight of his goal: He hopes to be the first Ja­panese player to get on the field for a real NFL game.

“I want to be, ummm, how do you say it? A pi­o­neer? Yes, I want to be a pi­o­neer,” Ki­noshita said Wed­nes­day, flash­ing an op­ti­mistic smile.

The 24-year-old re­ceiver is get­ting his chance with the At­lanta Fal­cons af­ter spend­ing the last three years in the nowde­funct NFL Europa, which served as the pri­mary con­duit to Amer­i­can foot­ball for for­eign-born play­ers.

Ki­noshita showed enough prom­ise — es­pe­cially as a re­turn spe­cial­ist — to earn an in­vi­ta­tion to Fal­cons’ camp and a chance to play in some ex­hi­bi­tion games. He’ll likely take a few snaps in At­lanta’s pre­sea­son opener against the New York Jets tonight.

“He has got­ten bet­ter each day,” Fal­cons coach Bobby Petrino said. “Ev­ery­body loves him and he does a great job. He works ex­tremely hard. He has started to un­der­stand what we are do­ing route-wise and how we are run­ning those routes. When we give him the ball, he usu­ally makes the catch. He is com­pet­ing and do­ing a good job.”

Ki­noshita’s spot doesn’t count against the manda­tory ros­ter lim­its, part of an on­go­ing ef­fort by the league to broaden foot­ball’s ap­peal in other coun­tries. The pro­gram is more im­por­tant than ever in light of the NFL’s de­ci­sion to shut down its money-los­ing Euro­pean league.

While the chances of Ki­noshita be­ing on At­lanta’s 53-man ros­ter when the reg­u­lar sea­son be­gins a month from now are re­mote at best, he didn’t come to camp merely hop­ing for a spot on the prac­tice squad.

“I want to make the team,” he said.

At 5-foot-10 and 179 pounds, Ki­noshita cer­tainly lacks the size to strike fear into op­pos­ing corner­backs. But the Fal­cons have been im­pressed with his speed, which at least gives him a chance to hold his own against play­ers who are much big­ger, stronger and faster than any­one he’s played against.

“It’s very, very hard,” he said. “The NFL play­ers are very quick. The prac­tices are very, very quick. Ev­ery­thing is quick, quick, quick.”

Ki­noshita ex­celled as a re­turn spe­cial­ist for the Am­s­ter­dam Ad­mi­rals. He led the league in its fi­nal sea­son by av­er­ag­ing 19.2 yards on punt re­turns, with one touch­down. The pre­vi­ous sea­son, he was first in kick­off re­turns with a 29.9-yard av­er­age.

Petrino liked what he saw on tape.

The Fal­cons have yet to use Ki­noshita on re­turns, pre­fer­ring to let him fo­cus on learn­ing the com­plex routes of the pass­ing game — a process made even tougher by his dif­fi­culty com­mu­ni­cat­ing in English. He had 21 catches for 308 yards and two touch­downs this past sea­son in Europe.

Grow­ing up in Osaka, Ja­pan’s sec­ond-largest city, Ki­noshita spurned two of the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar sports: base­ball and soc­cer. Foot­ball is more of an af­ter­thought — Ki­noshita com­pared it to ama­teur wrestling in this coun­try — though it is played in high schools and univer­si­ties.

Ki­noshita was hooked on foot­ball at early age, his in­ter­est piqued by an older brother.

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