NASHVILLE – The past four offseasons have gone partly like this for Titans tight end Jonnu Smith:
-Smith gets drafted in 2017, and right out of the gate he's asked by reporters what it's going to be like to learn from Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker. Smith says a lot of nice things about Walker, a guy he clearly respects and watched before arriving in the NFL himself.
-In 2018, Walker suffers a season-ending ankle injury in Week One, and Smith is immediately asked how he's going to fill Walker's shoes. Smith says Walker will be missed, he's going to do his best to pick up the load, and then he makes strides in his second NFL season.
-In 2019, Walker's lingering ankle injury gives him issues, and he ends up being placed on Injured Reserve after playing in just seven games. Smith again is the subject of questions centered on replacing Walker. He continues to praise his mentor, while saying he's going to do his part to help the team alongside fellow tight ends MyCole Pruitt and Anthony Firkser. Then he proceeds to have the best year of his NFL career.
-In March 2020, Walker is released by the Titans. Back in May, and again this week at the start of training camp, Smith once again finds himself fielding questions about what life will be like without the 14-year pro, who played the past seven seasons with the Titans. Smith once again praises Walker, and publicly thanks him for everything he's done for him.
By now, it's clear the respect Smith has for Walker is there, even if Walker is no longer in Tennessee.
And by now, it's also clear Smith is ready to keep making a name for himself without having Walker's name attached to his.
At this point in he's career, it's safe to say he's earned it.
Smith, a third-round draft pick by the Titans in the 2017 NFL Draft, is coming off the most memorable season of his career. Smith caught 35 passes for 439 yards and three touchdowns last season, along with three touchdowns. He made a memorable touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone in an AFC Divisional playoff contest at Baltimore.
"I've had the pleasure to watch Delanie throughout the course of my career and just learn from him and be an open book," Smith said. "It was really a blessing to me to learn from a guy like that. It was an amazing time having him here, to be like a fly on the wall."
Make no mistake: Smith loves Walker, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Titans who turned in arguably the best five-year stretch in franchise history by a player at his position. From 2013-2018, Walker's 356 receptions and 4,156 receiving yards (to go with 26 touchdowns) set a franchise high for a tight end in any consecutive five-year period. His reception total during that time span led all NFL tight ends and his yardage total ranked third among all NFL tight ends.
But Smith wants to pave his own road, and he has high expectations for himself.
"Right now, I'm trying to definitely surpass fulfilling the shoes that he walked in," Smith said of Walker, who has 504 catches for 5,888 yards and 36 touchdowns in his 14-year career. "Delanie was a great player. I, myself, always talked about never setting limitations on myself and I felt like if I was saying, 'I'm just trying to fill shoes at this point,' then I'm selling myself short. What I mean is, I just want to continue to surpass what Delanie did and what any great tight end has done. I'm trying to be the best.
"That's the foundation that I've laid out for myself and I've got to fulfill that. I want to help this team be in the best position come the season, so I'm just trying to work every day as hard as I can, put myself in that position and make sure I stay ready, day in and day out. So, as far as fulfilling shoes, it definitely will be a challenge to surpass a guy like Delanie and everything that he's done, but I'm definitely up for that challenge. And that's just who I am and where I am."
In three NFL seasons, Smith has 73 catches for 854 yards and eight touchdowns with the Titans.
During the course of his career, he's shown patience, determination, and toughness.
Smith went through a rigorous rehabilitation of a serious knee injury last offseason to put himself in a position to be successful in 2019. He's worked his way through a number of injuries to keep him career moving.
Just like Walker always did, Smith has respect from his teammates in the locker room.
Further evidence of that came earlier this offseason, when Smith was voted as the Titans' Ed Block Courage Award recipient.
The Ed Block Courage Award is given to a player on each of the NFL's 32 teams who represents a commitment to sportsmanship, courage, professionalism, and are considered to be role models in their community.
Smith wants to keep building on that trust – and on his career – this fall.
"(That meats) a lot," Smith said of the prestigious award. "It's one thing to get an award from other players or even fans, whether it's a fan vote, coaches, whatever, but to get an award from the guys that you walk in this locker room with, every day, lay everything on the line for, it's different. That hit it a different place in the heart. It just really showed how much respect those guys have for me. I have a lot of respect and love for everyone in that locker room, for everyone in this organization, so there's definitely a major blessing to get that recognition from my guys. They're proud of me and the strides that I've made."
Titans Online looks back at tight end Jonnu Smith's 2019 season (Photos: Donald Page)