NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Akeem Ayers and Jurrell Casey said the biggest difference in the start of their second NFL training camp is being past the meet-and-greet status with Titans coaches.
This time last year, Ayers and Casey found themselves thousands of miles across the country from where they grew up and played college football in California. Ayers, a linebacker out of UCLA, and Casey, a defensive tackle out of USC, earned roster spots and accounted for 31 of a possible 32 starts in 2011. They provided a boost, but want to build on that this season.
"Last year I came in just trying to get comfortable with the coaches and the defense and in Nashville," Ayers said. "This year, I'm way past that so I can focus on other things as far as my technique and playbook, so it's touching up the small things that are going to make me a better player.
"I'm a lot further along than last year, so I'm more comfortable doing more things and I don't have to be focused on learning the playbook from scratch," Ayers continued. "I pretty much know the playbook and my technique, so the coaches feel comfortable adding a little more to my plate and I feel comfortable accepting the challenge, and it's something I'm looking forward to."
Casey said training camp has been "way easier" so far this year because of his increased familiarity with the playbook and the coaching staff's familiarity with him.
"You don't have to stress on not remembering the play," Casey said. "Knowing the coaches, they know how you play, they know what you can do, so sometimes they can work with you on certain things better than what you know because they see more than what you see when you're out there and they know how your style is, so they can correct it faster than you can figure it out. Working with people that know you well is a good thing, so every day they go in there and critique everything from your footwork to your hand placement, to just giving effort."
Titans coach Mike Munchak said he can see the confidence in Ayers, Casey and fellow 2011 rookie classmates Colin McCarthy and Karl Klug, who also logged significant playing time last season. The confidence was built in the games and has further developed from a full offseason of organized team activity practices.
"I think the big thing is we know them well," Munchak said. "For young men, they are very confident."
The confidence helps defenders get to quarterbacks quicker on blitzes, track down running backs and play tighter pass coverage. It also enables coaches to raise expectations for the young players.
Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said he would like Ayers to have five or more sacks on the season and for McCarthy to lead the Titans in tackles. Last season, safety Jordan Babineaux led the Titans with 117 tackles. McCarthy started seven games, including the Titans' final six in 2011 and finished with 76 tackles. Gray obviously wants tackles made before the ball gets to Babineaux.
"We don't want to see a safety lead the team in tackles if we don't have to," Gray said. "I want to see Klug get double digit sacks because now you're over next to (free agent signee Kamerion) Wimbley, so if Wimbley gets his, Klug, you can get yours and then we want to see (Derrick) Morgan step up. We've got some guys that we expect to do some things, but you've got to work because they are not going to give it to you."
The Titans have placed significant emphasis on getting to quarterbacks more in 2012 than last year when they dropped quarterbacks for losses 28 times. They hired assistant coach Keith Millard as a pass rush specialist, signed Wimbley, and plan to exert pressure from multiple positions. Sunday's practice included a period that focused on blitzing.
"You're watching Akeem Ayers and that group out here practicing, there's a lot of speed going on, and the fact that he's rushing the quarterback — the linebackers are bringing it, even watching (2012 second round draft pick) Zach Brown today rush quite a bit," Munchak said. "They are some big linebackers that (running) backs are going to have a tough time blocking, and they're going to be fun to watch. We're just getting started here, but I think you saw the energy during the OTA, and I'm really excited about what they're going to be able to do when they're asked to rush the passer."
HUGE CROWD GREETS TITANS: Sunday marked the first of 13 scheduled practices that are free and open to the public, and approximately 2,000 Titans fans — the largest crowd ever for a single-team practice at Baptist Sports Park — showed up with great energy and enthusiasm that Munchak credited for sparking strong and speedy performances by players.
"I think when you go outside at night and it's so much cooler than it is during the day and you have the crowd out here, I think it energized the guys quite a bit," Munchak said. "I think they can relax and not go too hard, but I think it ended up being a pretty good workout for our second time out here. Those guys would love to practice at night every night if we could."
The crowd cheered as Munchak walked over with a microphone and made a short speech welcoming the guests before practice. He explained the Titans hoped to show fans what the team is about, "which will be winning a lot of football games" in 2012. Munchak stayed after practice to join scheduled players in signing autographs.
TITANS ALUMNI: Two former Titans greats also attended Sunday night's practice. Eddie George, the Titans/Oilers franchise leader in career rushing yards (10,009), and Craig Hentrich, the franchise leader in career punting yards (36,926) were on the sidelines.
George (1996-2003) and Hentrich (1998-2009) were teammates during the Titans' inaugural 1999 season that culminated with the AFC Championship and trip to Super Bowl XXXIV, and have remained connected to the organization after their retirements.
FIRST PADS OF 2012:Monday's practice will be the first time for Titans players to strap on pads, and defensive players are looking forward to that addition.
"When you put the pads on, it becomes more of a realistic situation," Morgan said. "You can actually see all aspects of the game."
Titans defensive tackle Shaun Smith said the first couple of days involved fundamentals, but the pads will reveal "who the real men are around here."
"Everybody looks good in shorts, but in pads, you get to see who's going to quit and who's going to be the toughest," Smith said.