NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A lot is made about the jump from college football to the NFL – and rightfully so. It's a massive leap.
But the same can also be said about the transition between a player's first and second year in the league. The game slows down, comfort levels rise and players begin feeling like they belong.
It's a league in which players seemingly go straight from rookie to veteran status, with little time in between. That theory rings true for second-year Titans center Brian Schwenke.
Schwenke came to the Titans as a fourth-round pick (107th overall) in the 2013 NFL Draft and was expected to immediately compete for the starting job at center. That competition was put on hold when Schwenke suffered a hamstring injury at the beginning of his first training camp a year ago.
"I think it was a combination of doing the combine stuff and the extra training you do coming into your rookie season," said Schwenke. "My body wasn't in the right kind of shape because I was training for combine and pro day. I think this year I've done the right things going into camp and I'm feeling really good."
The time between OTA's and training camp is crucial. It's a two-part equation for being prepared. Not only is it vital to be physically ready, but camp is equally a mental challenge.
"When the break starts you take a few days off and now I'm trying to ramp up so when camp starts I'm ready to roll," he explained. "You can't go into camp relaxed. You have to go in with a chip on your shoulder ready to compete. The mindset you have going into training camp is really important."
After returning to full strength his rookie season, Schwenke claimed the starting role at center in Week 7 against San Francisco. He went on to start eight of Tennessee's final nine games, giving him valuable game experience he feels has given him a jump start heading into the 2014 campaign.
"It was very necessary," Schwenke said. "You have to play if you're going to progress. You can practice as much as you want, but in order to get that experience you have to get into the game and play against that kind of talent. I think it was really good for me."
There are other benefits that come from no longer being a rookie -- many of which have nothing to do with the game of football.
"When you're a rookie in camp, you have no idea what to expect. You don't know when you're going to have to sing for the guys or do something silly like that. It's definitely a comfort thing," he said. "I think you have to be a little uncomfortable. If you're not uncomfortable you're not going to get better and you're just going to be complacent with the way you're playing."
The Titans selected California center Brian Schwenke with the 107th overall pick in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. (Photos: AP/California)
Complacency is something no one can afford with new head coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff. Schwenke understands that everyone must compete and prove themselves all over again, but said the competition is bringing out the best in everyone.
"I love the new coaching staff," he said. "I think we're heading in a great direction. Everything feels good and I think everyone who's been around the building knows that.
"We're progressing really well as a team," Schwenke continued. "We know we have a long way to go, but that's what camp and the preseason are for and we're going to get there. We're going to work hard in camp and get where we want to be."
Tennessee's offensive line returns four of five starters from a year ago. In addition to Schwenke, left tackle Michael Roos, left guard Andy Levitre, and right guard Chance Warmack all return in 2014. Veteran Michael Oher was signed during free agency to replace the retired David Stewart at right tackle. Taylor Lewan, the team's first-round pick out of Michigan, is expected to compete for considerable playing time – or even a starting spot at one of the tackle positions.
With a deeper unit in place, the offensive line will look to improve on last year's success of allowing the ninth-fewest sacks (37) in the league as they continue to gel together in 2014.
"I think one of the biggest things is having a whole offseason together," Schwenke explained. "Going into the season, we didn't have that whole year to prepare because we didn't know who was starting. Now we have a solidified group and we feel like we're moving forward with that group. Everything is clicking. We're working with each other and feel like we can do something really special."
Titans Online looks back at the 2013 season of center Brian Schwenke. (Photos: Donn Jones, AP)
Doing something special starts and ends with protecting fourth-year quarterback Jake Locker. Much of the team's success will hinge on the health of the eighth overall pick from 2011. Two consecutive injury-shortened seasons for the QB have left the Titans knowing they could have accomplished more.
A late hit against the Jets last season cost Locker three games, and getting his foot stepped on against Jacksonville ended his season. Schwenke said it's the offensive line's responsibility to keep Locker upright and healthy throughout the 16-game season.
"Jake's injuries have been freak things," Schwenke said. "He's one of the toughest people I know. He can take hits, but we're going to do our best to keep that to a low number."
And while offensive line is not a glamorous position, Schwenke believes playing the position requires a tough mindset in order to be successful.
"We don't have goals numerically or anything like that, but we have a mindset we want to achieve," Schwenke said. "We want to go out there and dominate as an offensive line and dictate what we're doing. If we want to run ball then we need to be able to run the ball. The same goes for the passing game. If you can control what you want to do then you can make good things happen."