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VOL. 35 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 9, 2011

Rookie McCarthy stakes claim at linebacker

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OK, I realize heaping praise on any rookie is always dangerous territory.

Five years ago, the Tennessee Titans thought the quarterback position was solved and in good hands for years to come with Vince Young earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. And we all saw how that imploded.

But with the sudden and profound impact the 2011 Titan draft class has had on the team’s success this season, it’s hard not to praise the group.

And the player who has ascended to the top of the rookie class is middle linebacker Colin McCarthy.

The fourth-round pick from the University of Miami has been nothing short of sensational since taking over for an injured Barrett Ruud four games ago. So much so that Ruud is rapidly on the verge of becoming the Titans’ version of Wally Pipp.

McCarthy’s philosophy is simple: Find the man with the football and tackle him. And if you can take the ball away from him in the process, so much the better.

“There are a lot of plays to be made out there playing middle linebacker. I try to make all of them,” McCarthy says.

A succinct philosophy and one that fits the Titan defensive scheme like no middle linebacker since the team has been in Tennessee.

Once upon a time in the NFL, middle linebacker was the glamour position on defense. Guys like Dick Butkus, Ray Nitcchke, Mike Singletary – and more recently Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher – come immediately to mind when discussing the position.

But in many schemes, that sideline-to-sideline middle linebacker has become a throwaway player – a guy too slow to remain on the field in nickel passing situations or someone to do the grunt work in a 3-4 while the outside linebackers rack up the impressive sack numbers.

But McCarthy has proven to be a throwback, and has also shown himself to be the difference-maker the Titans defense has lacked since the departures of Albert Haynesworth, Keith Bulluck and Kyle Vanden Bosch.

Sure, McCarthy has a ways to go before he can be crowned the kingpin of the Titan defense, but the rookie is already calling the defensive signals and doing quite well.

Also, in his last four games he has been in on virtually every big play the Tennessee defense has turned in. He has 42 tackles, five for loss, an interception, two passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Not a bad season of work, and that’s just McCarthy in only three starting assignments to his credit thus far this season.

Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray knew he might have something special in McCarthy when he first put him into the lineup for Ruud. That’s because McCarthy’s practice time was limited because of an injured hamstring and a sore knee. So Gray couldn’t be sure just how much the rookie had picked up watching someone else work in the scheme while he took mental notes. Not exactly unlike the way Steve McNair used to absorb things through the week at quarterback when he could not practice but answered the bell on Sundays.

“What I like about Colin is he pays a lot of attention,” Gray says. “He had been injured for awhile, and you wouldn’t think he was paying attention, but all of a sudden, when you put him on the board and you quiz him, and he has the answer.

“That, to me, is a guy who is really astute to what is going on,” Gray adds. “If you’re injured and you’re paying attention to what you’re doing, now you become a better football player.

“As a rookie if you can do that, you can go a long way in this league, because a lot of rookies don’t have that ability to not practice and watch what’s going on, and then you put them out there and they make plays.”

For McCarthy, it’s just doing what comes natural and taking advantage of his opportunity and hoping it rubs off on his teammates.

“I think as far as the energy I bring and the energy the defense brings is huge. As far as forcing turnovers, as far as us playing with that kind of energy, it’s contagious,” he says. “You need to make impact plays throughout the game, and there’s a lot of plays to be made throughout the game. When you get the opportunity, you need to take advantage of it.”

McCarthy has certainly done that, and the Titans defense is better for it.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com and is the AFC blogger for National Football Post.

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