NASHVILLE, Tenn. – I had a baseball coach growing up who gave a special nickname to blue-collar players. Guys that showed up everyday, did what was asked of them and had a work ethic that led by example. A player that when asked to jump, would ask how high.
He called them "lunchbox" players. The idea that no matter the day, a player was going to show up with his hardhat and lunchbox ready to get to work. It's a type of consistency where you know exactly what you're going to get from someone on a daily basis.
Avery Williamson is a lunchbox player.
Williamson is constantly given accolades by the coaching staff for his hard work and meticulous attention to detail. It's obvious that Tennessee's fifth-round pick has an undeniable love for the game of football. He's rarely seen without his beaming smile walking around Saint Thomas Sports Park. There's something to be said about someone who truly loves coming to work each and every day.
"There's a humility about Avery which really helps him with that," said Ken Whisenhunt of Williamson's continued improvement. "He understands how to work and he's not afraid to do that."
The rookie's infectious personality was apparent to Whisenhunt when the Titans met with him prior to the draft.
"One of the reasons we really liked him when speaking with him, you knew the football part of it was good, but the interview, just how mature he was and how he handles everything," continued Whisenhunt. "If there's someone you want to have success, it's those kinds of guys because they work so hard at it, they're so conscientious and they're such great teammates. It's great to see."
Success has come in bunches for Williamson just over halfway into his rookie campaign. Special teams is where Williamson got his first chance at playing time, an opportunity he earned after an impressive showing in training camp. As the weeks wore on however, Williamson's consistent improvement made him impossible to keep off the field.
Things went from zero to 60 for the rookie heading into a Week 5 matchup against the Browns. The coaches notified Williamson that not only would he be starting, he'd also wear the captain's helmet that communicated with the coaching staff up in the booth.
Titans Online looks at the 2014 season of rookie LB Avery Williamson (AP Photos)
Williamson took his newfound responsibilities in stride.
"My confidence has really been growing," he said. "I'm trying to not get ahead of myself. I don't want to get too excited about making a play or too down about not making a play. I'm just trying to do the same thing each week."
At a position with as much responsibility as inside linebacker, Williamson has already learned the necessity of a short memory.
"It's very important," he said. "The defense is depending on you to get the plays out. Just because you don't have a good snap the play before, you still have to be the same person and get everyone lined up because everyone is depending on you. It takes a lot of confidence to do that job."
Bad snaps have been few and far between for the rookie, who has made many plays worth being excited about. Williamson is averaging 8.4 tackles in his five starts with double digit tackles in each of the last two games. The linebacker also recorded his first career sack in Week 8 against Houston.
Williamson couldn't hide his signature grin when asked if he's surprised even himself this season.
"I really have. Some of the plays I've made I'm like, 'I can't believe I did that'," he laughed, almost naïve to his athletic ability. "Stopping Arian Foster on a screen, a whole lot of things are shocking to me when I look at it on film. I wasn't doing a lot of that at Kentucky so it's really cool to see my talents finally come."
The linebacker had a solid, but unspectacular four-year collegiate career as a Wildcat, logging 296 total tackles, 10 for a loss, four sacks and two interceptions. His impact on Tennessee's defense as a rookie is a testament to his tireless ambition for improvement.
One of Williamson's finest moments in his young professional career came in the Titans' Week 5 win against Jacksonville. Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts caught a pass at Tennessee's 10-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, only to be stripped by Jason McCourty. Williamson scooped up the loose ball and returned it 41 yards to midfield.
"The thought that was going through my head was 'everyone is looking at me don't mess up, don't mess up," Williamson continued laughing at himself. "It was really a fun moment. There's nothing like that feeling to get the ball in your hands."
He admitted his production thus far has already surpassed the modest goals he set for his rookie campaign.
"I would say that my expectations for this year were to play on special teams and to get a feel for the defense and maybe get in on a few plays," said Williamson honestly. "I really wasn't expecting to have this big of a role and to be telling the defense what to do out there. It's really a bigger step then what I thought I was going to take."
Williamson's teammates have taken notice of the rookie's progression, both as a player and as a leader in the huddle. Wesley Woodyard, a fellow Kentucky alum and Williamsons' counterpart at inside linebacker in the Titans 3-4 defense, had plenty of high praise for the rookie.
"He's playing really well especially as a first year player," said Woodyard. "The biggest thing is that he's getting better every week, making plays and making the right calls. It's good to see that he's taking everything in, and it's special being able play next to him having come from the same school."
The feeling is mutual for Williamson, who has taken advantage of the opportunity to soak in everything he can from the veterans in the Titans locker room.
"I'm learning a whole lot, especially from Wesley," he said. "Wesley's a great leader and he did the same thing when he was with Denver. It's cool to see how he controls the huddle."
George Wilson, another of the team's most respected veterans, showered more accolades towards Williamson.
"What you see from Avery is a result of the work he's put in from OTA's all the way to this point," he explained. "A lot of times you see guys hit a 'rookie-wall' but not Avery. You have to tip your hat to a young guy like that.
"He's been more assertive for a while now," Wilson continued on the rookie. "Any time you go into a new situation you're going to be a little hesitant, but he's gotten over those growing pains with his opportunities on the field. He's taking ownership of the responsibility that he's been asked to fulfill. I'm very pleased with what he's done up to this point."
Rookies in the NFL often are suggested to live by the motto "be seen not heard." A lot is asked of first year players. Being the team's vocal leader isn't usually one of those things.
That's just fine with Williamson.
"I'm not a big rah-rah guy," he said. "I can be, but I'm more of a get out there and make a play type of guy. I like to let my actions speak louder than my words."
And Williamson's play has been loud. Despite not starting until week five, Williamson's 46 tackles rank sixth among NFL rookies, and he is one of just two rookies to have at least two fumble recoveries.
Monday night will be an opportunity to Williamson to introduce himself to the football world – a primetime showdown against Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Making plays in front of an ESPN audience will have heads turning around the nation.
For someone that might be a Nashville secret right now, seven weeks is enough time for Williamson to get himself the deserved recognition for what has been a sterling rookie year.