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

the past.

”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

to camp.”

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