Titans TE Jonnu Smith Readies for Change and Challenge

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In his first season with the Titans, rookie tight end Jonnu Smith soaked in all he could from veteran Delanie Walker.

He sharpened his route-running techniques, honed his blocking skills and – maybe equally as important – learned from Walker just how important it is to maintain his health.

How could Smith go wrong in that regard, as the 33 year-old Walker roared through his 12th NFL season, catching 74 passes and earning a third straight trip to the Pro Bowl? 

"I think I was in middle school or something like that when (Walker) came into the league," Smith said. "But Father Time ain't catching up to him. You've got to give it to him. He takes care of his body. Not only that, he's performing at a high level."

Complimentary as he is toward Walker, Smith isn't shy about competing with his mentor either.

"I think he's the best at what he does," Smith said of Walker during mini-camp. "But I'm coming for that position, that's for sure."

If Smith sounds like he's gaining in confidence as he readies for year two, it's based at least in part on the solid rookie season he put together.

A third-round draft pick expected to produce right away in a tight-end heavy offense, Smith did just that. He was on the field for more than half the Titans' offensive snaps last season and caught 18 passes – fifth-most of any rookie tight end in the league.

"We put a lot on his plate last year," Titans tight end coach Arthur Smith said. "He played a ton of snaps for a rookie tight end."

But Jonnu Smith will face his share of challenges in year two as well.

For starters, he may have to prove to new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur that the Titans need to use multiple tight ends on a regular basis. 

That wasn't an issue last season for the Titans, who used two tight ends on 24 percent of their plays (fifth-most in the NFL) and three tight ends on 13 percent of their plays (tops in the NFL). But in Los Angeles, where LaFleuer served as offensive coordinator last season, the Rams only used two tight ends on 13 percent of their plays, tied for fifth-fewest in the league, according to sharpfootballstats.com.

"I think it's all going to be about we match up with (specific opponents)," Arthur Smith said of the Titans' use of tight ends this season. "When you've got multiple tight ends, there's a lot of unique match-ups you can create."

Jonnu Smith will also be learning a second NFL playbook in as many years, just after mastering a first offense over the course of his rookie season.

He's not alone in that regard, as Titans receivers Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe (injured in 2017) are all re-programming their football minds after playing one season.

Titans coach Mike Vrabel said he understands the challenges involved.

"It's the second year and you hope they make a bump, but then you're worried about, `Well, the offense changes,'" Vrabel said. "So you want to make sure the player, whether it's Jonnu or someone else, can play as fast as they can and not rely on thinking about their job.

"That's going to be the struggle all the way through, that we run the stuff they're comfortable with and the stuff they look fast doing. That's the only way you can win in this league, is by guys playing at full speed and not having to do a whole bunch of thinking."

Smith, who played over 30 offensive snaps in 10 games last season, doesn't sound as if he's been overwhelmed so far. In fact, as he walked off the Titans' practice field at the end of mini-camp last week, Smith sounded much more like an experienced vet than the rookie he was so recently.

"The NFL is the NFL – ball is ball," Smith said of digesting a new playbook. "We just have to come out here, be able to take everything down and execute it at a high level. We wouldn't be here if we couldn't do that."

-- Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.comand follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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