Postcard from camp: Titans
Chris Johnson is in camp after the Titans gave him a $1.25M raise a month ago
Veteran LB Will Witherspoon is trying to replace the departed Ketih Bullock
It appears unlikely veteran lineman Kevin Mawae will return for a 17th season
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Andrew Lawrence had to say about the Titans camp in Nashville. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
The Titans camp at their regular practice facility in Nashville, and the town certainly hasn't lacked for extreme weather over the past four months. In May, about 14 inches of rain fell on the region within a three-day period, sending the Cumberland River flooding into neighborhoods and resulting in the deaths of 23 people. The flooding also heavily damaged the Opryland Hotel and LP Field, which was under about six feet of water. Now, it's the heat that's taking a toll. The past two days have seen temperatures touch the 100-degree mark. Relief isn't expected to come until Friday, when the temperature's expected to dip down to a cool 93 degrees. None of this has deterred fan turnout, however. Supporters ran two deep along a length of one practice field on Tuesday.
1. Chris Johnson is in the building. When he wasn't shaking his dreadlocked mane on the sideline, he was flashing his trademark burst on the field. What a relief it must be for the Titans to have Johnson back in the fold after the third-year pro skipped offseason workouts because of a contract dispute. The matter was resolved when the Titans gave Johnson a $1.25 million raise for 2010 last month, but Johnson has since said he isn't satisfied with the fix. One of the ways the Titans hope to keep him happy is by keeping him busy. Before camp, Johnson, who tallied an NFL record 2,509 yards from scrimmage in '09, set a goal of rushing for 2,500 yards this season. A heavier workload at least would allow Johnson (who also carried a league-high 358 times last year) the chance for a payoff there -- and perhaps an even bigger one down the road.
2. Kenny Britt is on the rebound. He had a horrible offseason, falling out of shape and courting bad press in two run-ins with the law -- one incident true (he was arrested for outstanding traffic warrants totaling $865), the other not so much (he was accused of posting a $165,000 bond to bail a childhood friend accused of murder). Then on top of that came a knee injury that made him look so ineffective in the spring that his frustrated coaches shut him down for a week. The benching so bruised his confidence that he started to drop passes, causing him to cede valuable ground to lesser lights like Nate Washington and Lavelle Hawkins on the depth chart. (Britt was working with the second team in camp.) It was quite a turnabout for Britt, who announced himself as a star-in-the-making with his game-winning touchdown catch against Arizona last year and went on to lead the Titans in receiving yards with 701. Though he logged a couple more drops in Monday and Tuesday practice sessions, the effortless athleticism he flashed on a deep post pattern that went for a touchdown in one drill is one reason why Britt figures to be out of the doghouse and in the No. 1 receiver slot by camp's end.
3. Damian Williams is on the shelf. That means that Titans fans willing to brave the triple-digit heat will have to wait a while before they can see the third-round pick out of USC in action. (Williams injured his hamstring in June.) However, that doesn't mean that they won't see the return specialist on the field. Clad in a baseball cap and gym shoes, Williams was a conspicuous presence during the Titans' special teams drills on Tuesday -- never more so than on during one punt-fielding drill, when he distracted his fellow returners by throwing a tackling pad at them just as they were about to catch the ball. One can expect that they'll be returning the favor once he's back in pads. Assuming he survives that onslaught, Williams has the kind of talent and experience that can immediately help restore a Titans' return game to traditional prominence.
I won't lie: I was kinda surprised to see Will Witherspoon in the Titans locker room, especially after the year he had in Philadelphia in '09. After starting middle linebacker Stewart Bradley went down with a torn ACL in the preseason, the Eagles sent wideout Brandon Gibson and a fifth-rounder to St. Louis for Witherspoon in October; he finished second on the team in tackles, with 51. Though the output wasn't enough to save the ninth-year pro from getting cut in March, it wasn't long before he found a home in Tennessee and a place in the Titans' Cover 2 defensive scheme.
Once again, Witherspoon finds himself having to fill another set of big shoes -- this time they belong to departed outside linebacker Keith Bulluck, a leading Titans tackler. But Witherspoon, who can play either the inside and outside 'backer spots, isn't stressing that as much as he is picking up the Titans' scheme, which borrows elements from systems he played in during previous stops in Philadelphia, St. Louis and Carolina. At times the playbook can read like an episode of This Is Your Life to him. "When you've been in this game as long as I have, it's a little bit more hilarious in that sense," he says.
When Florida State safety Myron Rolle passed on the chance to play pro football in 2009 to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, more than a few NFL talent evaluators questioned his commitment to the game. (It became popular to dismiss Rolle, a 3.75 GPA student who need just 2½ years to complete his bachelor's degree in exercise science, as too smart.) But the year abroad taught Rolle, whom the Titans took in the sixth round in March, a lot about what it takes to hack it at this level-starting with how to study. He has found that the same techniques that gave structure to the six-hours daily study sessions required for his master's degree in medical anthropology can be applied just as effectively to learning the Titans' Cover-2. "I go over the material once, memorize it, write it down, go over it again, then ask the coach -- which is what I would do when I was in school," Rolle said. "Every practice is like a test here, so I have to make sure that I'm always ready and prepared."
Chocked with the usual mess of football detritus, Kevin Mawae's locker is indistinguishable from his Titans teammates' -- except, of course, in one key area: the 16th-year center is nowhere near it. The 39-year-old Pro Bowler became a free agent after the 2009 season, but so far has found few takers. The Titans, too, appear to be passing. In February they re-signed veteran guard lineman Eugene Amano to a five-year contract and moved him to center. (Meanwhile, backup Leroy Harris takes over Amano's old spot.) Mawae had been optimistic about returning to Nashville to play in his 17th NFL season, telling The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt that Fisher had promised him a roster spot, though not necessarily a starting one. (Fisher didn't dispute this.) But general manager Mike Reinfeldt was quick to douse Mawae's flickering hopes, telling the paper that "barring injuries, it doesn't look good here."
1. Hard to believe that the Titans are in the market for a change-of-pace back, especially after the season that Johnson had last year. One of the players they are auditioning for the job is rookie LeGarrett Blount. The undrafted free agent out of Oregon is best known for punching a Boise State defensive lineman at the end of the Ducks' season-opener, resulting in an eight-game suspension. He nearly signed with the 49ers after the draft, but spurned them for Titans, thinking he'd be a better fit here -- especially now that LenDale White is gone.
2. There's a reason why Kerry Collins always sounds like such a good idea as a starting quarterback: because he sounds so good under center. He has the kind of low, gravelly cadence that just commands attention -- whether you're running plays for him or not.
3. Vince Young sent a ball into the crowd during a passing drill -- not because he was struggling with accuracy (he looked the sharpest I've seen him running the first team), but because a fan was harassing him for a souvenir. When asked if Young could expect to be charged for discarding team equipment, coach Jeff Fisher quipped: "That's a $7,500 fine."
4. No trip to Nashville would be complete if I didn't get a Mizzou Tigers prediction from fellow alum Tiger Justin Gage. When I asked him which team -- football or basketball -- would have the better season, Gage, who alighted on both, said: "I think they're gonna be tough in basketball. Mentally, they're playing smarter, even though it didn't really show last year. But I really need football to beat these Big 12 South schools. Especially with all these Texas and Oklahoma guys I've got in the locker room. I don't really need to be hearing all that chatter."
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