One of the great things that I love is their natural athleticism. They’re great athletes: big, physical, fast individuals who love to play the game, but now, we’re going to learn the discipline of the game. We’re going to understand that it’s the fine points and fundamentals of the game that are going to make the difference between you being a good linebacker and a great linebacker. It’s those guys that are able to learn the nuances of the game, the fine points, the film study, the little telltales and keys that allow you to get to a spot a little faster than the next guy, and when you get to the spot, being in the proper body position, using the proper technique to make that play. There’s nothing worse than a linebacker that’s making a good read or a proper key getting there and then blowing the tackle. Those are the disciplines of the game, the little nuances that make one guy better than another. That’s what we’re going to focus on, as far as the core linebackers. We’re going to do the little things well, we’re going to communicate. We’re going to make sure that everybody’s on the same page, and then the most important thing, we’ve got to be fundamentally sound. At no other position on the field are fundamentals more important than linebacker.
Why are fundamentals so important at the position?
Because you’re involved in both aspects of the game, the passing game on the back end and the running game on the front end. You have to master both skills. You have to be able to cover man-to-man and zone, and you have to be able to plug the run between the tackles. No other position demands that as consistently as linebacker does.
When you look at the projected starters (Ayers, Brown and McCarthy), do you have players in mind that you want them to pattern their games after?
That’s almost a little too early to evaluate that. When I see Akeem, I see a big, physical guy that can play very tough on the line of scrimmage, can be a nightmare for tight ends. He’s athletic enough where he can help out in coverage and physical enough at the point of attack where you shouldn’t be able to move him. He has all those gifts. There are little subtleties in his game he has to get better with: playing with his hands, he has to understand he who shoots first is going to win the gunfight. If you get your hands on a guy first, you’re going to control the engagement. He gets his hands on you, he’s going to control it. We’re going to have a saying in this room: ‘He who makes his second move first wins,’ and that’s really the rule of football. The ball is snapped, they go, we go. Now, whoever makes his second move first wins that play, and that’s the philosophy we’re going to go with; same thing with our block shedding, getting off blocks. He runs, I hit him. Now, if he gets his feet and pad level going, he runs over me. If I get my hips and pad level going, I run over him. He who makes his second move first wins. That’s going to be a credo in this room. We’ve got to learn that we’ve got to do those things out of aggression. Akeem has those things.
Zach has a beautiful blend of size and speed, and he has to know when to use each of those gifts on a consistent basis. Those are things he has to know. If he gets an undersized running back on pass protection, go right over the top of them. If you’re covering a slow tight end and you want to make a play in zone or man, go make the play. If you’re covering a fast receiver, you have that ability, play it safe and make the play. Decisions. He’s got probably the purest natural instincts. He has good recognition and sense on the field. Now, it’s being able to do things once he gets to those points: be able to tackle well, use his hands.
The middle linebacker position, one of the things for him is he’s got to stay on the field. Consistency. It’s hard to get into a rhythm. Linebacker is a rhythm position. Once you get in a good rhythm, it’s like an NHL goal scorer. Once a guy gets hot, it seems like the puck always finds his stick and he gets a lot of opportunities. Linebacking is the same way. Once you’re in a zone and you get a feel for what your opponent is doing, it’s amazing how it brings you right to the football. You’re going to be around the football all afternoon. You can actually sense it coming. Colin has a good gift of being around the football. He’s got to get better on his decision process. He’s got to develop patience at the position. The ‘Mike’ backer, out of all three linebackers, does not have the luxury of being a guesser. You cannot guess. You have to be sure of the evidence in front of you and react accordingly.
Where are the young core guys at in terms of establishing their identity?
We’ve identified blanket needs as a defense. In talking to (defensive coordinator Jerry) Gray, we’ve identified the fact that we have to tackle better. We just missed too many tackles as a defensive football team. I can even attest to that as a special teams coach. There were times we just missed too many tackles, and again, those are things that can be fixed. To be a better tackling football team, we’ve got to understand about time and space, playing in space, keeping our bodies under control, keeping the proper leverage and pad level, staying on the near hip, all the little things that lead you to that moment of making the tackle. It’s body position, knee bend, acceleration of your hips, bringing our feet. You can see how many little things lead up to that moment of making that tackle. We’ve got to be a better tackling football team. We’ve got to communicate better as a defense, talk to each other, make sure we don’t drop coverages, make sure we know where the other guy is. Communication is going to be a big thing, and then we’ve got to rally. We’ve got to run to the football as a unit. We’ve got to sprint to the football. Effort is something that’s got to be non-negotiable. I will not tolerate a lack of effort. We will play hard or you won’t play. We’d like to believe that if we play hard every play, everybody will just jump on the bandwagon and we’ll all play hard.
Coach Mike Munchak delivered one of the more memorable phrases so far this offseason when he said he believes the linebackers will be the “best, baddest linebackers in the league” from your coaching. Were you guys thinking the same phrase?
Coach and I have known each other for over 30 years. He knows what I expect of these guys, and he’ll accept nothing less. We are going to be a hardworking, tenacious, physical core of linebackers. Like I told Coach Gray, I’m going to give you three fundamentally sound, passionate, relentless football players. Those are going to be the characteristics used to describe Titans linebackers.