Titans opening up playbook for versatile newcomer McCluster

Dexter McCluster earned his first career Pro Bowl bid last season with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Denny Medley

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When discussing the process of designing plays for versatile offensive weapon Dexter McCluster, Ken Whisenhunt nearly spoke in a riddle following the second day of mandatory minicamp on Wednesday.

"There are things outside of the playbook, as you would characterize it, that are in the playbook for him," the first-year Titans coach said.

Thus, when roll is called in Titans position meetings, you’ll find McCluster bouncing from running backs to wide receivers to special teams. Such is the versatility that made the crafty and speedy offensive threat a natural fit as a free agent signee for the Titans’ new offense.

"The one thing I can say, the more I know, the more opportunity I have to get the ball," said McCluster, who spent four seasons with the Chiefs after being their second-round draft pick in 2010. "I have been having fun. They’ve been having fun with me. I’m getting a lot of key opportunities, whether it’s running the ball or catching the ball. What (Titans coaches) said to me was, ‘The more you know, the more you’ll get the ball.’"

While being used mostly as slot receiver to catch a combined 105 passes for 963 yards the last two years with the Chiefs, Titans offensive coordinator Jason Michael is emphatic about what position McCluster will play this season.

"He’s a running back," Michael said just before noting that McCluster rushed for 516 yards on an average of 4.5 yards per carry in 2011 while used primarily as a running back by the Chiefs.

But with that said, Michael was just as quick to note that the 5-foot-8, 170-pound product of Ole Miss will be asked to play a variety of roles from multiple sets this season.

"It’s a learning process for all of us right now," Michael said. "We’re trying to figure out what he does well, what he does better than not. That’s what this offseason is all about. It’s an evolving process of not just with Dexter, but the whole offense."

It’s that offense led by Whisenhunt and Michael that attracted McCluster to the Titans in the first place. He saw what the duo did last year in San Diego — with Whisenhunt as coordinator and Michael as tight ends coach — especially with versatile Chargers running back Danny Woodhead, who logged 429 rushing yards and 605 receiving yards.

"I am the type of guy that you can create mismatches with, whether it’s a linebacker, whether it’s a safety," McCluster said. "So, I definitely think (Whisenhunt) will kind of exploit those one-on-one situations and try to create some opportunities."

While trying to lure McCluster to the Titans, Whisenhunt showed him film on how he utilized Woodhead and other similar backs over the years, whether as head coach of the Cardinals from 2007 to 2012 or the Steelers offensive coordinator from 2004 to 2006.

"I’ve watched (McCluster) for a number of years and played against him a couple of times," Whisenhunt said, "and he’s always been a pain in the butt to try to defend. I think it is more about what we have done with other players like him in the past. He can see evidence of how successful we have been with guys like him and then knowing we can put him in those type of positions and in the right spot. We’re all excited about that."

McCluster joins an offense led by fourth-year quarterback Jake Locker that already features a variety of weapons. Wide receiver is set with veteran Nate Washington, emerging star Kendall Wright and second-year deep threat Justin Hunter, while rookie Bishop Sankey and veteran Shonn Greene should hold down the running back spot. Veteran tight end Delanie Walker, who had a career-high 60 catches last year, also returns.

Just where McCluster fits with the Titans, including punt and/or kickoff returns, won’t be fully determined until end of training camp in late August.

"We wanted to find a guy who created problems for defenses (with) a guy who has versatility to do some different things, similar to how we used Danny Woodhead in San Diego last year," Michael said. "Dexter has played more in the slot the last couple years in Kansas City, but if you go back to 2011 when he spent a bunch of time in the backfield, we knew he had the ability to run the football as a running back and the versatility to do some different things and move him around and create some matchup problems for defenses."

So while he’s listed as a running back by the Titans, it’s still not a surprise when McCluster winds up spending time in meetings with wide receivers and return specialists.

"I’ve been in every single one," McCluster said of the different position meetings. "I mean, it’s a workload. I have been doing so much as to where I can study running back, I can study receiver and I can study punt return or special teams, or where they need me. So, I’ve been busy."

That’s nothing new for McCluster, though. In four seasons with the Chiefs, McCluster appeared in 58 games with 23 starts and had 4,208 yards of total offense. That included 1,500 receiving yards on 172 catches with four touchdowns, 662 rushing yards on 152 carries and one TD, 959 punt return yards with three scores and 1,087 kickoff return yards.

Last season, McCluster was named to his first Pro Bowl as a punt returner.

"Change can be good or bad," McCluster said of signing with the Titans. "But in this situation, it is definitely good. I’m out there flying around, just moving fast every day. I think we are really good as an offense, and I’m definitely getting better as a player."