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Preseason Outlook for Titans Special Teams

Posted Aug 7, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Special teams plays this preseason will offer Titans coaches the opportunity to evaluate which players can execute the best and determine who wants it the most.

Titans coach Mike Munchak and special teams coach Nate Kaczor trade notes during Saturday's mock game at LP Field.

Special teams coach Nate Kaczor, who was promoted from assistant offensive line coach, said he and new assistant Steve Hoffman will use less strategy than during the regular season to help their evaluations.

Kaczor won’t turn down “flash plays” that result in long returns but has placed a significant emphasis on consistently doing right because he views it as the way to increase the likelihood of such plays and prevent bad outcomes. The Titans open preseason play at 7 p.m. by hosting the Washington Redskins at LP Field.

Players have previously made rosters largely because their performance on special teams has set them apart, and that could again be the case this season. Such battles are a compelling part of training camp, but here are some other things to look for from Titans special teamers this preseason:

WHAT A RETURN: Marc Mariani emerged as a rookie in 2010 and made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner. He followed it up with a solid year in 2011, but suffered a compound fracture in his leg last August. Remarkably, Mariani’s return has exceeded the expectations of coaches who already had a high opinion of him.

Kaczor was with Jacksonville from 2008-11 and respected Mariani before coming to Tennessee in 2012.

“(By) competing against Marc, I understand what he’s made of and his ability,” Kaczor said, “and since I was here last year and got to know him, even on a more intimate level, he substantiated the way I feel about him.”

Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said Mariani is “right in the middle of the competition” at receiver.

“He’s been above my expectation for him, as far as where he’s come back from,” Loggains said. “He’s got a heart the size of LP Field. It’s unbelievable what he’s done to this point. I’m really happy for him and proud of him. I hope his success continues.”

The injury to Mariani extended an opportunity to Darius Reynaud, who had been out of football in 2011. Reynaud returned a kickoff a franchise-record 105 yards and made an accurate lateral to Tommie Campbell in the “Music City Miracle Remix” against Detroit and became the first player in Titans/Oilers franchise history to return two punts for touchdowns in one game (against the Jaguars in the season finale).

Reynaud and Kaczor, however, think a little bit of inconsistency led to some missed opportunities last season.

“Last year I left a lot on the table, and (Kaczor’s) breaking everything down for me to make special teams even better next year,” Reynaud said. “(We’ve looked at) me missing the read here or there, missing the cutback. Watching last year I’m like, ‘I left a lot of touchdowns or big plays on the field.’ ”

Kaczor said the Titans are also likely to take a look at cornerback Khalid Wooten, a sixth-round pick out of Nevada who handed return duties in college, and receiver Diondre Borel, who joined the Titans’ practice squad last December.

KICK COVERAGE: Kaczor said kickoff coverage will be basic through most of the preseason, with the Titans showing a few more things on punt protection and coverage because it is connected to how a punter is hitting the ball. Reliable veteran Brett Kern is expected to handle punting duties.

“We’re going to keep it very simple so we can evaluate players,” Kaczor said. “It’s better to find out who can hold up man-to-man in any matchup on special teams and where we’ll need to help guys, and then also, as the roster unfolds, that will give us more clarity of who will be playing so we’ll need to evaluate all the players in the preseason.”

GREAT OPPORTUNITY: Rob Bironas, the second leading scorer in franchise history, re-signed a multiyear deal with Tennessee this offseason but the Titans also signed undrafted free agent Maikon Bonani, who is likely to handle all kickoff and field goal duties Thursday while Bironas is resting his back.

Preseason Live: Tennessee TitansTitans coach Mike Munchak called it a “great opportunity” for Bonani, who has a powerful leg and is poised to become the first player of full-Brazilian heritage to play in an NFL game. Bonani’s family moved from Brazil to Florida when he was 11 and said he’s connected with hundreds of fans through social media since signing with Tennessee.

“I’m really excited,” Bonani said. “It was an honor to come to Tennessee and be part of this organization, but the honor is even greater to be in the NFL, and that’s something I’m going to be able participate in an actual game. I’m excited for myself, for my friends, my family, the people back in Brazil who are rooting for me, so it’s real good. It’s an honor to try.”

PURPOSE & PASSION: The nature of building a special teams unit from offensive and defensive players makes it possible that it can impact an offense and/or a defense in a positive or negative way. Titans players, including veterans, have embraced opportunities to be on the unit instead of viewing them as inconvenient duties that require additional meetings and work. Kaczor said that’s what it’s all about.

“As a coach at any level, what you’d like to see is guys play for each other, find that their great purpose to play the game with a lot of passion,” Kaczor said, “but in a way that resembles the technique and the drills that we’ve all been working on.”

Damian Williams, a versatile receiver capable of playing the three receiving positions in the Titans’ offense, continues to appreciate special teams.

“Most of the time special teams is strictly effort. You can teach many techniques and that type of stuff but at the end of the day, it’s guys that have played a couple snaps on offense or defense that are going straight to punt. Special teams is really when you get a chance to dig down and find out who your players are and who (is) mentally tough.”

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