NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Look around the Tennessee roster, and the Titans' youth movement is most noticeable at linebacker.
Sure, Will Witherspoon is a 10-year NFL veteran heading into his third season with Tennessee. But he's the rare veteran in a meeting room where Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy are back as starters after strong rookie seasons. The Titans also used their second-round draft pick on Zach Brown, boosting speed at the position.
Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is pretty blunt about the fact he's expecting much more out of the group after wrapping up the team's offseason program Thursday.
"That's the best part about it," Witherspoon said Thursday. "We're going to have the opportunity to really be knowledgeable about everything on the defense more, show the nuances, to adapt to things. That's going to be a big change for us. Last year, it was, 'OK, you go jump in the fire and start getting it moving.'"
Ayers and McCarthy did just that last year.
Ayers became the first rookie to start all 16 games for this franchise since 2002. The second-round draft pick out of UCLA also finished with 88 tackles and quickly was joined in the starting lineup by McCarthy, their fourth-round pick out of Miami, who had 76 tackles and a team-high eight tackles for loss despite starting only seven games down the stretch.
"Last year, I came in trying to think what I need to be doing, trying to learn the entire defense in like a month's span," Ayers said. "Now I pretty much know the defense, so it's tighten up the minor things and work on my technique."
Ayers has done that, including refining his pass rush skills with assistant coach Keith Millard. Ayers had only two sacks and three tackles for loss as a rookie with no interceptions.
McCarthy replaced veteran Barrett Ruud as a starter in the middle in mid-November and impressed coaches with his play in calling defenses as a rookie. Now he's had the nine-week offseason program to study film with linebacker coach Frank Bush and see all the schemes Gray wants to add to the defense going into his second year as coordinator.
He also knows any success he and Ayers have had already is in the past.
"You've got to perform every week," McCarthy said. "Having the second year, we want to build off last year, limit the mistakes from last year and just get better. I think there's a lot of room for improvement defensively, things that we do. We worked toward that this offseason. We're going to build on that once we come back to camp."
They worked this offseason beside Witherspoon, who played every game last year for his sixth straight season with 62 tackles.
In Gray's defense, players get the chance to play in situations that suit their strengths. That is why Gerald McRath was on the field in passing situations last year. That helped convince Zac Diles to sign with the Titans and rejoin Bush, who was his coordinator in Houston.
"I get in here, and I'm like literally the second-oldest linebacker ...," Diles said. "But it's a welcome change you can come in here and be around the young guys and just have fun out there."
Even though Witherspoon said he still outraces some of his younger teammates, the Titans also believe they got much faster when they drafted the 6-foot-1, 242-pound Brown out of North Carolina in the second round in April. Brown set a school record with the track team by running the 60 meters in 6.72 seconds in 2009 and was timed at 4.44 in the 40-yard dash at the combine.
"Zach's learning a lot from Will, a veteran who's been there, done that," coach Mike Munchak said. "He can play all the spots at linebacker and can play the base package in the nickel. That's something very helpful for Zach to see Jerry's working him at both spots ... It's just a matter of seeing how quickly he can come on and help us."
The Titans ranked eighth in points allowed but tied for 18th in giving up 346.8 yards per game. McCarthy said he's preparing for a big season and all of last year's rookies are excited going into their second year.
"Having played last year will help us this year coming in, feeling comfortable," McCarthy said. "Week 1, Patriots, here at home. That's what we're looking forward to."