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Titans look for big improvement with new returner

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)

Jeff Fisher insists he's learned his lesson.

The Tennessee coach, a punt returner himself when he played in the NFL, started off training camp taking full responsibility for the Titans' struggles of 2009 when both the punt and kickoff return units ranked among the league's worst. A fumbled kickoff and a muffed punt cost them the third game in their 0-6 start.

''I didn't address that adequately enough, but we will do that this year,'' Fisher promised.

So far, Tennessee seems to be repeating at least one step that led to those problems - counting on a rookie who's missing practice with an injury.

It was Ryan Mouton and his left ankle in 2009, and now it's Damian Williams and his right hamstring. The Titans also are looking at rookies Marc Mariani and Bobby Sewall for punt returns.

''We've got guys that have done it in college and done it consistently and been productive at it, and so far there are no issues fielding balls, making decisions and those kinds of things. I think with, regardless of who we decide on, we've improved,'' Fisher said.

It would be hard for Tennessee to be much worse than 2009.

The Titans ranked 25th in punt return average with 6.7 yards per return with the longest an 18-yarder. By the end of the season, Fisher often just had defensive back Kevin Kaesviharn sit back and catch the balls as the team finished with 22 fair catches compared to 33 punts returned.

Tennessee was even worse on kickoffs, ranking 29th with an average return of 20.5 yards. Kenny Britt led the team with 24 returns for 523 yards and a 21.8-yard average. He also had a 56-yard return in December against Indianapolis, but the receiver and top draft pick of 2009 is far too valuable to use on special teams.

The low point came against the Jets in Week 3. Mouton, who had limited work due to spending part of the preseason in a walking boot, had his only kick return go for 14 yards before fumbling on Tennessee's first chance at the ball on offense. He muffed the punt in the second half. The Jets scored four plays later and won 24-17, sending the Titans to their third straight loss.

Fisher immediately brought back veteran Mark Jones, who had been released in the final roster cuts. But Jones re-injured a hamstring and wound up on injured reserve. The Titans brought in Alvin Pearman, but he watched as many games as he played due to needs elsewhere on the team on game-day.

The Titans drafted Williams in the third round out of Southern California and Mariani in the seventh round. Williams handled 44 punts for the Trojans, averaging 14.2 yards per return with two touchdowns. Mariani handled punts for three years and kickoffs as a sophomore and junior at Montana.

Williams, who hurt his hamstring at the end of the team's organized team activities in late June, started camp on the physically unable to perform list. He said Tuesday he's hopeful of coming off that list within a few days and is eager to get busy rather than watching.

''You've got to be mentally tough to do it because a lot of the special teams act is based on being able to take the actual physical reps, being able to see what the hole looks like, getting the timing right, catching the ball and taking off. Standing there and not being able to participate is definitely different from the learning aspect,'' Williams said.

''And just being a player I want to be out there with the team.''

Being able to return will be key for earning a roster spot for Williams, Mariani and Pearman. Williams and Mariani are looking up at receivers like Justin Gage, Nate Washington, Britt and Lavelle Hawkins with the team likely to keep only six receivers. Pearman is behind Chris Johnson competing with running backs Javon Ringer and rookies LeGarrette Blount and Stafon Johnson.

And Fisher is working to get them as many chances to field punts every day.

''There's no substitute for live reps, but I expect them all to be productive,'' he said.

Tagged: Titans, Alvin Pearman, Marc Mariani, Damian Williams

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