Playing rookies in the NFL is always a tricky proposition.
Colin McCarthy's play from his college days has made for a smooth transition as the Titans middle linebacker.
But the Tennessee Titans may have found the foundation of their defense for several years to come, thanks to the play of two first-year linebackers.
Second-round pick Akeem Ayers of UCLA and fourth-round pick Colin McCarthy of Miami have not only solidified the Titans base defense with their play, they're now staying on the field in the nickel package as well.
Ayers was installed as the starter at strong side linebacker from the minute the Titans drafted him in April. And after a slow start, he is becoming more and more comfortable and has taken gradually nudged his way into a bigger role by becoming a three-down linebacker.
McCarthy, meanwhile, has taken the team by storm the past three games since supplanting an injured Barrett Ruud in the middle. He has registered double digit tackles in each of those three games, picked off his first pass and now has team-high five tackles for loss already for the season. In taking over for Ruud, who is troubled by a groin injury, McCarthy, too, has earned a role in the nickel package and is also calling the defensive signals.
Their process has Coach Mike Munchak pleased with not only the future, but the present at the linebacker position.
“I think it’s real encouraging to see someone develop as quickly as all of the sudden (McCarthy) is in a short period,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “Akeem is the same way, and we are starting to try to use Akeem more on third down. So he is getting more reps... We are adding more to his plate because he is ready for that now. It is exciting to watch your young players get better.”
To McCarthy, it's just about playing football and doing what a middle linebacker should be doing – getting to the ball and making tackles.
“We need to make impact plays throughout the game. There are a lot of plays out there to be made, and playing middle linebacker, when you've got
the opportunity, then you've got to take advantage of them,” McCarthy said.
Linebackers coach Frank Bush says McCarthy is just doing what comes naturally to him.
“Colin has played middle linebacker pretty much his whole life. He's been a guy who has seen a lot of different situations at Miami and even here, he's gotten some reps throughout games. He's comfortable in that role,” Bush said.
Ayers has been busy making the transition to being a strong side (Sam) linebacker, after having had a number of roles while at UCLA.
“Akeem has kind of bounced around a little bit. He played some defensive end in college, played some linebacker, played inside, played outside,” Bush said. “He's still learning to be a good solid outside linebacker, and on top of that, we've started to give him nickel stuff. There's just a lot of learning, a lot of new stuff for him. He's taken on the stuff in our base package. He's learned that, and he's kind of owned that information. Now he's moving forward with our nickel stuff.”
One reason for moving Ayers into the nickel package was that the Titans saw his playmaking skills and wanted to get him on the field more than in just the base package.
“Since I'm able to stay in the game more, I'm able to get a feel for the game. When you're in and out, it's hard for me personally to get a feel for the game,” Ayers said. “But when you're in on third down and you get the opportunity to rush the quarterback or drop into coverage, you get the opportunity to do more things. … I've always believed in for myself, but it's just taken time to prove to them that I know the defense and that they can trust me in the game.”
For Ayers and McCarthy, the trust factor from the Titans has certainly risen to a high level much quicker than expected.