NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This time last year, Jake Locker started the process of competing for and eventually winning the starting quarterback job for the Tennessee Titans.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. After all, the former University of Washington quarterback had been deemed the franchise’s heir apparent at the position after being made the No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 draft. So, after sitting behind veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck as a rookie and working under then-offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains, Titans coach Mike Munchak eventually named him the starter during training camp.
The future had finally arrived at the position for the Titans, who were still reeling at the position from the implosion on and off the field by former starter Vince Young.
Locker’s debut as a starter last year was a dubious one. In the 11 games he played — four to start the season and seven to close after sitting out five games in the middle with a shoulder injury — he was inconsistent at best. The jury is still out on him as he enters his third season, one in which he is expected to not only take the offensive leadership reins and run with them, but to be a key reason for a turnaround from last season’s disappointing 6-10 record.
And what a difference a year makes for Locker.
Palmer was fired before last season could run its course, Hasselbeck signed with the Indianapolis Colts after not being re-signed by the Titans, and Loggains has been promoted to offensive coordinator and put in charge of implementing a new offensive philosophy that plays to Locker’s skill set.
“The tempo and the speed have been very fast,” Locker said Friday of the new offensive approach following the team’s third Organized Team Activities session. “The one thing I would say about the three days we have had so far is effort can’t be questioned, offense or defense.”
Also different this year is two-year Titans receivers coach Dave Ragone, a former college and NFL quarterback, has moved to quarterbacks coach and will work directly with Locker. Along with Loggains, that gives Locker two coaches who will have direct impact on how he progresses in preparing for this third season.
“He’s a guy that since I’ve been here that I have spent a lot of time with,” Locker said of Loggains, who has been on the Titans’ staff since 2006 in a variety of offensive roles. “I’m very comfortable with him. We have a very good relationship, a really good working relationship, I think.”
And when you add Ragone to the coaching equation, Locker feels very comfortable with the support staff in which Munchak has surrounded him.
“Awesome,” Locker said of working with Ragone, who played three seasons for the Houston Texans from 2003-05 after a standout college career at Louisville. “He’s a guy that played the position just recently. He understands what it’s like to be in the pocket and what you’re seeing at times and can coach from that stance, which is nice.”
For Ragone, the transition from receivers coach to quarterbacks coach is a natural one.
He feels the two years spent coaching Titans receivers added a unique perspective to coaching quarterbacks.
“I have a better appreciation for what (receivers) go through,” Ragone said. “I learned a lot the last two years … and I think it has helped me in my terms of coaching and teaching style.”
All of which Ragone hopes to translate into coaching Locker, who is having the new offense catered to his specific skill set that includes the ability to make plays with his legs, a strong arm and a dogged determination on the playing field. In fact, it was Locker’s attempt to make a tackle after throwing an interception against Houston that he separated his left shoulder in 2012. The injury required surgery after the season.
As previously mentioned, Locker didn’t exactly set the world on fire last season. In those 11 games he did play, he completed only 177 of his 314 pass attempts for a mediocre 56.3 percent. His 11 interceptions overshadowed 10 touchdown passes, and his efficiency rating was a paltry 74.0.
“More than anything else with the quarterback, you start with the fundamentals,” Ragone said. “And Dowell did a very good job with Jake from the start. It’s just making sure we stay on top of those things. But in terms of the game itself, it’s how you take out the gray.
“How do you take out the clutter from the quarterback’s mind? And then at the end of the day at the position, you have three seconds to make a decision. So, how quickly can I get you to process. And Jake does a good job of that already.”
Ragone would like to harness Locker’s tenacity and have him pick the proper moments in which to make plays with his legs. He also knows from being in the receivers room the past two seasons how much that group respects Locker’s play-making and leadership abilities.
With Locker not worrying about earning the starting job – the Titans signed former Buffalo Bills starter Ryan Fitzpatrick as the backup – OTAs give off a different feel this time around. Ragone senses that in watching Locker go through the paces this spring.
“Unfortunately for me, I don’t know what it’s like to be a starter in the NFL,” Ragone said. “But you can tell it’s a different mindset. There are going to be things, not so much catered but, ‘Hey, do you like this or you don’t like this?’ But in terms of coaching him, he reminds me of those guys who have the passion. You can see it in every one of his plays.”
As for Locker, he said there are no lingering effects from the surgery in January on his non-throwing shoulder. He dislocated the shoulder in the season opener but continued to play before re-injuring it against the Texans three games later.
“They are not holding me back from making any throws,” he said. “I don’t have any restrictions when I am out there. There is nothing they are not allowing me to do. And I feel good with everything that I am doing.”