NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans want Chris Johnson in camp as soon as possible. While he stays away, Javon Ringer, rookie Jamie Harper and Stafon Johnson are working hard to take advantage of the extra work this preseason.
Ringer is going into his third season, and the All-American at Michigan State has stepped up as the No. 1 running back during training camp. Harper was Tennessee's fourth-round draft pick in April out of Clemson, and the heaviest back on the team at 233 pounds is ready to provide a change of pace.
Johnson is trying to make the team after a second challenging injury ended his attempt as a rookie, and Herb Donaldson also is working hard in camp.
"All the opportunities I'm able to get with the ones feels like it's helping me a lot," Ringer said Wednesday. "Just helping me to be more comfortable out there with the offense and the offensive line and with Matt (Hasselbeck). It's all beneficial. You can never get enough reps. I try to make the most of every opportunity I get."
Ringer said he has talked with Johnson and shared some of the similarities and changes in the offense.
With his work, Ringer has made a strong impression on offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. Ringer ran for 4,398 yards in college but slipped to the fifth round when he went to the NFL Combine five weeks after knee surgery and was timed at 4.56 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
Ringer had eight carries for 48 yards in 2009 when Johnson ran for 2,006 yards and LenDale White was on the roster. White was traded in 2010, and Ringer ran 51 times for 239 yards.
"I'm very pleased with Ringer," Palmer said. "He's exceeded my expectations. I was very, very pleased with him. We're going to have to find some plays for him when Chris gets back in here because he's done so well."
But Ringer bruised a hip in the preseason opener and is hoping to get back on the field Thursday so he can play Saturday night at St. Louis. In the meantime, the rookie Harper has been working with the first-team offense. He also scored on a 2-yard touchdown run in the 14-3 win over the Vikings in what he said could be his easiest score of the year.
Harper said he wishes Johnson were in camp just so he could learn from him. Even though Harper is 40 pounds heavier than Johnson, the rookie has some speed too. He was timed at 4.35 seconds in the 40 on campus.
"Intelligent back, knows the game is not too big for him," Palmer said. "When the lights go on, he didn't run for cover. Very pleased with what he's doing. He's a good inside runner, runs hard, has a good knowledge of football, has good sense."
Still, the lingering question is when will the Titans and Johnson work out a new contract.
General manager Mike Reinfeldt said last week they want to make him the highest paid running back in the history of the NFL. Johnson, the only player in NFL history with three touchdown runs of 85 yards or longer, wants to be paid as a top playmaker. He mentioned $30 million in guaranteed money as a target in 2010.
Johnson is in Orlando, and fullback Ahmard Hall also has been talking to Johnson and said teammates know CJ will be ready to work when a deal is completed.
"He's down there working out in Florida probably with the guys he worked with for the combine and the guys he works with every time he's down there during the offseason and just waiting, waiting for this contract situation to resolve," Hall said.
Hasselbeck and Palmer haven't met Johnson, not that either anticipate any problems getting adjusted quickly with the running back. Hasselbeck said handoffs are simply a matter of turning left or right. Palmer said they all know what Johnson can do.
"It's not like we haven't seen him on film enough," Palmer said. "He walks in here, we know the plays that fit him and what his forte is ... He's going to have a little adjustment. The run game is basically the same. There's some learning to do in the passing game. I think he'll be up to speed."
Coach Mike Munchak also agrees Johnson won't need much time to get caught up, but he said they were hoping to have him around for the final two preseason games to work out any kinks.
"No matter how special you are, it's hard to step in and play at that level without having an injury ... That's the concern for us. As a coach, you want him here. Now how it's going to end up, we'll have to wait and see," Munchak said.
NOTES: DT Sen'Derrick Marks (shoulder) practiced for the first time in training camp Wednesday in his recovery from shoulder surgery in March. He is expected to play the final preseason game. S Nick Schommer (hamstring) also returned. WR Lavelle Hawkins missed a second practice excused for personal reasons but is expected back on the field Thursday. LB Barrett Ruud (right shoulder) sat out a second practice.