Wearing a camouflaged Titans hat, jeans and boots, the future face of the Tennessee Titans organization fit in just fine at Hampton Elementary.
Quarterback Jake Locker, the team’s 2011 first-round draft selection, headlined the organization’s first-ever Titans Caravan appearance in Carter County during a Wednesday morning visit to the local school.
“I haven’t been over here yet, so this is my first opportunity to kind of check out this part of the state,” Locker said. “It’s awesome to see how much support we get, not only in the Nashville-area or the surrounding community there, but all of Tennessee as well. It’s really cool.”
One of 24 school visits scheduled within the 50 stops on the two-week three state tour, Hampton students were educated on healthy living as part of the NFL’s Play 60 initiative via a partnership with the Tennessee State Parks with a special appearance by Titans Pro Bowl mascot T-Rac.
Locker received an extra-warm welcome from the Hampton students as he spoke about exercise and nutrition and the importance of getting 60 minutes of activity each day.
“We’re building off of NFL’s Play 60 initiative and encouraging kids to get out from in front of the TV, put the video game controllers down and get outside,” Locker said. “Move around for 60 minutes, do something active for at least 60 minutes a day — it would be awesome if they wanted to do more than that, eating right, putting the right things in your body and also making sure they get the right amount of rest so these kids can grow and get their bodies the way they’re supposed to.”
After a last year’s league lockout forced cancellation of the annual Caravan event, the Titans have made an extra-push this offseason to reach out to new faces and new fans, and specifically in East Tennessee Wednesday with the future of the club’s quarterback position making five stops.
Locker, an avid fan of the outdoors, who drives a Chevy truck and listens to country music, gives much of the football fan-base in this area a Titan star to whom they can relate. And without former University of Tennessee hero Peyton Manning in the same division and a local addition in Kingsport’s Cody Sensabaugh to the roster via this year’s draft, the time is now for the Titans’ rise in East Tennessee — according to the team’s lead radio voice Mike Keith.
“I think the bottom line is, it’s about time,” said Keith. “We’re 15 years into this now. We’re sort of the Titans 2.0. Steve McNair got us started, and Eddie George and Frank Wychek and Jevone Kearse. Now it’s Jake Locker and Chris Johnson and Kendall Wright and Derrick Morgan. It’s their time. It’s fun for me to see this second group come in and take this thing.
“From 1999 to 2003, we won 61 games, went into the playoffs four times, best record in football in 2000. We had a good run. We’re getting ready to do that again, I believe, and it’s fun.”
A key element of this new Titans, steered by soon-to-be second year head coach Mike Munchak, is Locker.
Drafted eighth overall one year ago, the native of Ferndale, Wash., studied behind starter Matt Hasselbeck and showed out in his five game appearances as a rookie reserve, completing 34 of 66 passing for 542 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
His 282 yards against New Orleans was the most by a rookie quarterback in the organization since the Oilers’ inaugural season, when Jacky Lee picked Boston apart with 331 yards. Locker’s final appearance, against Indianapolis, saw an 11 of 16 showing for 108 yards and touchdown in the last six minutes of that game.
For Locker, the whole professional football experience his first year was nothing short of a dream come true.
“That’s the best way to describe it,” said Locker. “From this time last year, when I was able to get drafted here to this organization and to go through a season and a first year in the NFL, it was something I dreamed about since I was a little kid and had the opportunity to kind of live out last year. It was a lot of fun.”
The role of understudy behind Hasselbeck helped Locker better adapt to the NFL way of life as a rookie. A player known for his competitiveness and toughness at the collegiate level, Locker said the hardest part of adjusting to professional football wasn’t the speed on the field or growth as a player and leader. Instead, it was taking something that was part-time in college and cultivating a career from it.
“I think the biggest thing for me to adjust to was the routine of turning it into something you did part-time, ’cause you’re a student half the time you are in college, going from that to making football your full-time job and establishing a routine within that was the biggest challenge for me that first year.” Locker said. “I’m looking forward to the second season where that’s kind of in place now. You know what to expect and you’re a little more comfortable with that.”
Locker will battle with Hasselback for the starting role when the team begins training this summer, but whomever is given the keys to the ship will be piloting a team that returns much of the pieces that fell one game shy of the playoffs one year ago with a 9-7 record as well as a draft class that improved the team’s speed and strength as a whole.
“I think we were excited about the team we had last year,” Locker said. “We were close last year. I think we have a lot of those pieces of the puzzle coming back and we added some new ones. We’re looking forward to what this year has in store for us.”
Whether it’s this season or next season, Locker will take his turn in Nashville and become what the team hopes is the successful heir-apparent quarterback to the late Steve McNair — a role previous first-round draftee Vince Young was unable to attain during his brief stay in Tennessee.
“I think what we feel like about Jake and what they said the minute they drafted him, (general manager) Mike Reinfeldt and (head coach) Mike Munchak, the minute after they drafted him they said, ‘Jake Locker is a fit for the Tennessee Titans,’” said Keith. “We found that to be totally true. Not only as a player, not only running our offense and being our quarterback but from a leadership standpoint, having guys respond to him and even situations like this (Caravan).
“This is who we are. We’re a regional team. We expect — you see all of those kids wearing Titans jerseys — we’re a ways from Nashville, but we want them to grow up Titans fans, so we’ve got to market regionally and everybody understands it’s everybody in the organization’s job to help with that. Winning football games is the best way to do it, the Titans Caravan is another way to do it and he obviously fits doing this. When you see him in the school program, you’ll see the impact he makes. For a lot of these kids, they’ll never forget today and that’s special.”
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DRAFT CLASS SPECIAL
Heading into this year’s NFL Draft, the Tennessee Titans looked to improve their depth as far as overall team speed and strength were concerned. According to Keith, those issues were addressed.
First-round selection, Baylor wide receiver Kendall Wright, brings an explosiveness. North Carolina linebacker Zach Brown, taken in the second-round, is a three-down type player. Third pick Mike Martin will figure right into the defensive tackle rotation, then there’s Sensabaugh, a star at both Dobyns-Bennett and collegiately at Clemson, who was taken in the fourth-round as a cornerback.
“We’re really excited about what he’s going to do,” Keith said of Sensabaugh. “To get a Tennessee kid is such a big deal, but he fills a big need at corner and running a 4.31 (40-yard dash), having a chance to be competitive and get in the mix for the nickel or the dime spot and help us on special teams.”
The most intriguing guy to Keith is fifth-rounder Taylor Thompson, a tight end from SMU, who figures to add another dimension to what starter Craig Stevens and back-up Jared Cook offer.
“You talk about a guy that’s 6-6, 260 that’s been an All-Conference USA defensive end who can move over and play tight end and sort of be that combo guy,” Keith said. “Stevens is really a great blocker who can catch. Cook is the receiver and this is a guy who can sort of be both. You know he’s physical, because he played defense, and athletically he was a high school All-American tight end so he can fit into that.”
Markelle Martin from Oklahoma State, pegged prior to the 2011 season as a potential top safety pick, was taken in the sixth-round with Rice defensive end Scott Solomon winding out the team’s draft in the seventh-round.
“All of those guys, too, they help your depth, they help your roster more competitive,” said Keith. “But let me tell you what stands out to me the most, when you get to Sunday, you’re figuring you’ve got to make seven guys inactive. You want guys who can compete for the 46 active roster spots. All of those guys can play special teams. All of those guys can play sub packages. Hey, you could put Thompson on defensive end to rush a passer at the end of a game if you had to. That’s what you want in today’s NFL, that versatility.”
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OPTIMISM SURROUNDS TITANS
A team that was pegged to win three games prior to the 2011 season surprised a lot of people with a 9-7 campaign that fell just shy of the playoffs.
Keith said it’s no surprise that optimism is high around the young organization as the Caravan makes its way across Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama.
“That’s what we’re finding on the road,” he said. “The optimism is back. The excitement within our fans is back. The crowds have been bigger than they were. We didn’t have a caravan last year, but these are the biggest crowds we’ve had in four or five years. What else is back is expectations and Coach Munchak really welcomes the expectations. He was out with us on Friday and somebody yelled, ‘Coach, we expect you to go in the playoffs.’ He said, ‘I expect to go to the playoffs to, we all do.’
“That’s exciting because we’ve been kind of down, it had been a rough couple of years, then to go through the lockout and the coaching change and not knowing what was going to happen — to have last year go down the way it did, you’re picked to win three games and you go 9-7 and have all of these things going your way. We’re an ascending team again, tough schedule, but if we go do what we should do, we’ll be tested going into the playoffs and be as dangerous as anybody.”
Tennessee opens its regular season at home Sept. 9 against defending Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and AFC champion New England.