All eyes on Mariota for Titans camp
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Drafting a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback brings greater attention and expectations to any NFL team.
For the Tennessee Titans, all this buzz has been missing for years, so Marcus Mariota already has provided a big boost to the bottom line.
Now it's time to start showing he can help them win on the field.
The Titans reported for training camp Thursday trying to rebound from the franchise's worst season since 1994, a 2-14 campaign that included a 10-game skid to end coach Ken Whisenhunt's debut season. Whisenhunt persuaded defensive whiz Dick LeBeau to work with coordinator Ray Horton, and the Titans also signed a handful of free agents this offseason, including outside linebacker Brian Orakpo.
They also took Mariota with the No. 2 selection overall, hoping he can key a turnaround for a franchise with one winning record since 2008.
A year ago, Whisenhunt talked of hosting a playoff game as a key goal. The coach avoided setting any specific goals before Friday's first practice with a roster featuring only three players with nine years or more experience in the NFL.
"We've got to prove to our fans, we've got to prove to a lot of people, we can be a better football team than we were," Whisenhunt said.
Mariota will be on the field Friday for the first practice as the last of the first-round draft picks to sign, a deal announced nine days before training camp. That keeps the rookie on track to start the preseason opener Aug. 14 at Atlanta and the season opener Sept. 13 at Tampa Bay against top pick Jameis Winston.
Mariota already has impressed coaches and teammates alike with his speed, accuracy and work ethic this offseason. The Titans certainly think the former Oregon star eventually will lead them back to the playoffs, where they've been only twice in the past 11 seasons.
"It'll be exciting to be able to watch him grow and see the type of quarterback he's going to become," cornerback Jason McCourty said.
Getting used to working under center is just one of the challenges Mariota faces in transitioning to an NFL offense from the spread he operated at Oregon. Injuries made that even more difficult, with left guard Andy Levitre forced to snap the ball this offseason. The Titans have tried to surround Mariota with lots of targets, including new wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Harry Douglas, along with rookie Dorial Green-Beckham and veteran tight end Anthony Fasano.
"The only way we can make things easy for him is when he throws you the ball, make a play," said tight end Delanie Walker, who led the team with 63 catches for 890 yards last season. "We all get paid to make the quarterback look good, and that's what we got to do this year."
Deciding how much to play Mariota during the preseason starting Aug. 14 at Atlanta is another issue. Whisenhunt wants to keep Mariota on the field with teammates he's been practicing with to promote chemistry.
Mariota has been in Nashville since signing his contract and even worked out with his wide receivers at a local high school the past few days. He got some extra time in with Hakeem Nicks, signed this offseason to a one-year deal. The man whose 36 victories are more than any other quarterback in the past three seasons says he's very excited to start camp.
"Everything I've done in my lifetime and my career as a football player has built up for this moment to make the most of it, so I'm excited," Mariota said. "I can't wait to get things going, and I look forward to tomorrow."