Youth being served in Titans’ linebacking corps
Look around the Tennessee roster, and the Titans’ youth movement
is most noticeable at linebacker.
Sure, Will Witherspoon is a 10-year NFL veteran heading into his
third season with Tennessee. But he’s the rare veteran in a meeting
room where Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy are back as starters
after strong rookie seasons. The Titans also used their
second-round draft pick on Zach Brown, boosting speed at the
Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is pretty blunt about the fact
he’s expecting much more out of the group after wrapping up the
team’s offseason program Thursday.
”That’s the best part about it,” Witherspoon said Thursday.
”We’re going to have the opportunity to really be knowledgeable
about everything on the defense more, show the nuances, to adapt to
things. That’s going to be a big change for us. Last year, it was,
`OK, you go jump in the fire and start getting it moving.”’
Ayers and McCarthy did just that last year.
Ayers became the first rookie to start all 16 games for this
franchise since 2002. The second-round draft pick out of UCLA also
finished with 88 tackles and quickly was joined in the starting
lineup by McCarthy, their fourth-round pick out of Miami, who had
76 tackles and a team-high eight tackles for loss despite starting
only seven games down the stretch.
”Last year, I came in trying to think what I need to be doing,
trying to learn the entire defense in like a month’s span,” Ayers
said. ”Now I pretty much know the defense, so it’s tighten up the
minor things and work on my technique.”
Ayers has done that, including refining his pass rush skills
with assistant coach Keith Millard. Ayers had only two sacks and
three tackles for loss as a rookie with no interceptions.
McCarthy replaced veteran Barrett Ruud as a starter in the
middle in mid-November and impressed coaches with his play in
calling defenses as a rookie. Now he’s had the nine-week offseason
program to study film with linebacker coach Frank Bush and see all
the schemes Gray wants to add to the defense going into his second
year as coordinator.
He also knows any success he and Ayers have had already is in
”You’ve got to perform every week,” McCarthy said. ”Having
the second year, we want to build off last year, limit the mistakes
from last year and just get better. I think there’s a lot of room
for improvement defensively, things that we do. We worked toward
that this offseason. We’re going to build on that once we come back
They worked this offseason beside Witherspoon, who played every
game last year for his sixth straight season with 62 tackles.
In Gray’s defense, players get the chance to play in situations
that suit their strengths. That is why Gerald McRath was on the
field in passing situations last year. That helped convince Zac
Diles to sign with the Titans and rejoin Bush, who was his
coordinator in Houston.
”I get in here, and I’m like literally the second-oldest
linebacker …,” Diles said. ”But it’s a welcome change you can
come in here and be around the young guys and just have fun out
Even though Witherspoon said he still outraces some of his
younger teammates, the Titans also believe they got much faster
when they drafted the 6-foot-1, 242-pound Brown out of North
Carolina in the second round in April. Brown set a school record
with the track team by running the 60 meters in 6.72 seconds in
2009 and was timed at 4.44 in the 40-yard dash at the combine.
”Zach’s learning a lot from Will, a veteran who’s been there,
done that,” coach Mike Munchak said. ”He can play all the spots
at linebacker and can play the base package in the nickel. That’s
something very helpful for Zach to see Jerry’s working him at both
spots … It’s just a matter of seeing how quickly he can come on
and help us.”
The Titans ranked eighth in points allowed but tied for 18th in
giving up 346.8 yards per game. McCarthy said he’s preparing for a
big season and all of last year’s rookies are excited going into
their second year.
”Having played last year will help us this year coming in,
feeling comfortable,” McCarthy said. ”Week 1, Patriots, here at
home. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”
Notes: Munchak surprised his Titans on Thursday when they
expected three team drills only to find themselves on the field for
about an hour. They left helmets indoors and competed against each
other pushing sleds, throwing balls at a moving target and finally
in a tug of war pitting position groups against each, with the
offense winning at the end. Munchak said it was a great way to send
players off on vacation after 100 percent attendance this
offseason. … The Titans waived LS Jake Ingram and CB Gary