Locker shows progress, Hunter much more in Titans’ new offense

Justin Hunter had four receptions for 111 yards and two touchdowns in the Titans' 31-24 loss to the Saints on Friday.

Derick E. Hingle/Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With the first preseason game a wash, both literally and figuratively, Titans quarterback Jake Locker finally got his first real test Friday night running the new offense.

After reviewing game film, Titans first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt said today that Locker passed with flying colors during the two offensive series the first-team offense played in the 31-24 loss at the Saints.

In last Saturday’s preseason opener against the visiting Packers, the first half was played in a deluge, limiting Locker to only two pass attempts and little chance to manage the offense for an extended period of time.

"For his first chance of really operating the offense," Whisenhunt said of Locker, "there is a number of things in that situation. We were on the road. We were handling the noise. We were playing against a team that will give you a lot of pressure, so there were a lot of things going on that you have to manage outside of just the offense itself, and I thought he did a nice job with that."

Locker completed 8 of 11 passes for 75 yards and one touchdown — a 4-yard fade pass to wide receiver Justin Hunter in the corner of the end zone on their opening series — and a 121.4 rating. Locker led the team to another score on the second possession, capped by a 50-yard field goal by kicker Travis Coons.

"He was good in his reads," Whisenhunt said of Locker, who led the offense to 11:32 in time of possession on the two drives. "When they gave us the prevent defense, which they did a couple times, he took off and ran with the ball and made some plays. I thought he was in control of it and did a nice job, made some accurate throws, was very efficient, and we were successful when he was in there. So, it was a good start."

Locker is a key component in the Titans returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Since being named the starter in 2013, the ’11 first-round draft pick has missed 14 starts, including nine last year, with various injuries.

But he has played well when healthy, including guiding the Titans to a 3-1 start last year before the first of two injuries. Earlier this year, the Titans did not pick up the contract option for Locker in 2015, so he is playing in the final year of his contract and for a future with the team.

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"It was great to see the way we came out and started the game," Locker said. "We had two long drives and overcame some tough down and distances. Overall, it was something we can definitely build off of."

For the night, though, the Titans turned the ball over five times, including four fumbles. Third-string quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw an interception, but also played well in relief of backup Charlie Whitehurst, who departed the game in the second quarter with an injured hand.

"It’s no secret we turned the ball over (Friday night)," Locker said, "and we’ve got to clean that up. I mean, when you look at the stats, one of the biggest things game after game is who’s turning the ball over. When you win the turnover battle, you then give your team a great chance to win. We’ve got to do a better job offensively of taking care of the football."

A bright spot on offense was Hunter, the second-year wide receiver who had four catches for 111 yards. Other than the 4-yard scoring catch from Locker, Hunter hooked up with Mettenberger late in the first half on a 64-yard touchdown catch, flashing open across the middle and showing breakaway speed to race to the end zone untouched.

After a lackluster performance in last Saturday’s preseason victory over the Packers, Hunter was greeted before last Monday’s practice with a jersey at his locker that had the name "JAG" – standing for "Just Another Guy" — covering his last name on the back.

It was planted there by Whisenhunt and wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson, who has been pushing Hunter since he was drafted in the second round last year out of Tennessee. He wore it during Monday’s practice, and the jersey is still hanging in Hunter’s locker as a reminder for what it will take to realize his vast potential.

"I think you are seeing just a glimpse of what he can be," Whisenhunt said today of Hunter, who had only 18 catches last year, but they totaled 354 yards at a team-leading 19.7 yards per catch and four touchdowns. "Because of what he did (Friday) night, let’s not make the mistake and think he is by any stretch close to what he can be."

Although his 6-foot-4 frame and blend of athleticism allow him to make highlight reel catches, Hunter is also far from being consistent enough to complement Kendall Wright and Nate Washington as the solid third wide receiver option.

"There is a lot of things from route depth to discipline on his (route) releases to those things that, even though he made some big plays for us (Friday) night, those have got to become more consistent," Whisenhunt said of Hunter. "So, he’s still got a lot of work to do, although I am excited for two things.

"No. 1, because he can make those big plays and No. 2, he seems to have the right mindset to work on those things. Part of being a young player, you’ve got to be able to do that yourself."

Following his big game Friday night, Hunter expressed exactly that.

"I still got a lot of work to go," Hunter said. "I have a long way to go. (Whisenhunt is) going to stay on me from now on still. Even though if I do some good, it doesn’t matter. I’ll still be a ‘JAG’ to him.

"(I’ve got) another year of maturing, basically. The guys still are going to stay on me — Nate, Kendall and all of them — they are going to stay on me. (Wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson) is going to stay on me, obviously. That’s the next step, I feel like."