NASHVILLE, Tenn – Leon Washington and Dexter McCluster may be the favorites to return kicks and punts for the Titans in 2014, but neither has taken reps so far in the team's first two preseason games.
Reason for concern? Not really. Tennessee's rain-soaked preseason opener against Green Bay altered plans on many fronts, making last week's game at New Orleans feel more like the opening game - especially for head coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff.
"It was really, essentially, from an evaluation standpoint our first preseason game," Whisenhunt said following the 31-24 loss to the Saints. "Even though I know it's our second one, it was a different game, obviously, than our first one."
Wide receiver Marc Mariani has handled the majority of return duties so far after the rain limited him to just one kick return and zero punt returns against the Packers. Mariani had plenty of chances against the Saints, finishing with three kick returns for a 30-yard average and a long of 36.
"Special teams in general had a good night, and for me personally it felt good to get loose and make a few plays after things didn't go my way against Green Bay," said Mariani. "You just have to stay ready for when they call your number."
Mariani did benefit from two Jimmy Graham unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. The Saints tight end dunked the ball over the goal post following both of his touchdowns – a celebration that will draw flags for the first time this season.
Instead of kicking off from the 35, the Saints were moved back to their own 20, removing any chance of a touchback.
"I was pumped he did that. I appreciated it. (Thomas) Moorstead has a leg on him, but I knew that kicking off from the 20 that I was going to get a chance," Mariani joked. "We got a couple and I appreciated it very much."
Running back Antonio Andrews (two kickoff returns) and defensive back Khalid Wooten (one kickoff return) also joined the mix against the Saints.
In both games, McCluster and Washington haven't been a part of the game plan on returns, but there is certainly a method to the decision making process.
"We wanted to look at some other guys," Whisenhunt said. "I feel like we know what both Leon and Dexter can do. We're going to talk about that this week, about potentially getting them some opportunities. A little bit more of a known factor with those two guys."
That didn't stop McCluster from lobbying Whisenhunt for reps.
"I went to him a few times and asked, 'coach can I get one today?' and he told me 'no'," said a smiling McCluster. "It's tough watching knowing how bad I want to get out there, but hopefully I'll get my opportunity this week."
The Titans may approach their third preseason game with a different game plan, but nothing has been set in stone yet. The coaching staff doesn't normally make personnel decisions until a few days before the game, and the players may not be notified until the day of the game.
Titans Online looks at the special teams players on the team's roster at the start of the 2014 training camp. (Photos: Donn Jones Photography, AP)
"[Special teams] coach Nate Kaczor has a game plan, but we don't know until the night before or even on game day," said Mariani. "I've gotten my number called these past few weeks, but I don't know what they're going to do going forward. Like I said, you just have to stay ready."
Whisenhunt said Tuesday he doesn't feel either McCluster or Washington needs the game reps, but he still wants to work them in at some point over these final two preseason contests.
"I'd feel comfortable putting them back there week one, but that doesn't mean we're not going to get them some work in the preseason," said Whisenhunt. "It could be this week, but we haven't talked about it yet. I'd like to do it at some point."
Washington is entering his ninth NFL season and feels ready to go regardless of any preseason work. In fact, it wouldn't be a first for him.
"Either way I'll be fine," Washington said. "I prepare in practice like it's a game and that's the most important thing. How you prepare in practice translates to the game, so I'll be fine either way. In the past I've had preseasons when I didn't return and was ready to go in week one."
McCluster admitted that for him, it's not as simple as riding a bike.
"I wish it were that easy, but I think it's a repetition thing," he explained. "We have to get back there and get used to it – judging the balls and catching the balls again. I'm looking forward to this weekend, hopefully getting a few returns under my belt."
As with many of the spots on the roster, there's quality and depth at the position that gives the coaching staff plenty to work with – three guys who have all gone to Hawaii for their achievements in the return game.
"I look at it this way. We have some great returners," said McCluster. "All of us can bring playmaking ability and all of us can score touchdowns. I think with that type of threat it's a competition every day. We're all good at it so it will make us better in every way."
Washington approaches the competition as an opportunity to learn from some of the NFL's best in the hopes of turning the Titans into a dominant special teams force.
"We feel like we want to be the best special teams units in the league, so that's our goal," Washington said. "Our conversation is always about going out each week and preparing the right way. I learn a lot from those guys and try to implement it into my game, so hopefully we can continue to learn off each other."