The Tennessee Titans lost three players and 14 sacks from their defensive line this offseason.
But don’t sing some dirge of doom and gloom around Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn, because he’s not at all discouraged about rebuilding a unit that accounted for 36 of the Titans’ 40 sacks in 2007.
“It’s going good. I’m encouraged. Sometimes I haven’t been encouraged [in the past],” Washburn said.
Part of the reason for Washburn’s upbeat approach to fitting new pieces into the line rotation is that he still has mainstays like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Tony Brown and eventually Albert Haynesworth (out of offseason work after being tagged as a franchise player) to build around.
The other reason is veteran Jevon Kearse has returned and brings with him the same exuberance he showed a decade ago as a high-motor rookie.
Then, there are those who truly are wide-eyed rookies or the equivalent thereof, such as 2008 draft picks Jason Jones and William Hayes, undrafted defensive tackle Barry Booker and 2007 rookies Jacob Ford and Antonio Johnson, both of whom had their first seasons wrecked by serious injuries.
“We’ve got three rookies, counting Barry Booker, and I like them,” Washburn said. “We’ve got two other rookies, no matter what they put beside their name — second year or whatever in Jacob Ford and Antonio Johnson.”
Kearse, who was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1999 and a perennial Pro Bowl player before departing for Philadelphia, is Washburn’s chief reclamation project this year, much the way Vanden Bosch was three seasons ago.
“Jevon is just sort of figuring it out again how to play fast,” Washburn said. “He’s been in a whole different system. This is practice five or something. He gets a little better every day. This is a good system to play in if you’re a defensive end that runs. We have a guy named [defensive end] Dave Ball, who has been with some other teams, and he’s like, ‘Wow, this is a dream come true. You get to play fast.’”
Kearse is as eager as any to get going now that he has been reunited with Washburn.
“[We can be] as good as we want to be,” Kearse said. “We have a great group of guys going. … Over the years, that’s when we’ve been most successful, when we’ve got ones and twos who can come in and not miss a tick.”
“There’s lots of young guys. … There’s lots of young motors out there, who are able to run and able to learn lots of things from myself, Albert and Kyle,” Kearse said. “We’ve got to bring the veteran leadership out there with the young guys and then we can put it together and get used to playing with each other.”
This year’s group might be short on experience, but not enthusiasm, and Washburn especially likes that. He says it could eventually lead to a more productive unit than the one that spurred Tennessee to a No. 5-ranking in the NFL on defense a year ago.
“I hope we’re better. We want to be better than we were before,” Washburn said. “I’m thinking we’re going to be. We’ve got some young guys here that like football. I’ve had some guys here that didn’t like football. I had some guys last year that didn’t like football. But these guys like it, and that’s refreshing to me. It’s fun. Coaches love football. That’s why they coach. … And when you find some guys that really like it and are really intrigued by it, then it makes coaching a lot more fun than having some guy that’s just here for the money. The guys I’ve got in that room right now, most of them are eager to learn, and they’re young. It’s fun.”
Vanden Bosch, who had 12 sacks in earning his second Pro Bowl last year, says the attitude from a year ago can carry over.
“Sometimes, it’s kind of fun to start with a clean slate and get some new bodies in there and try some new things,” Vanden Bosch said. “That’s kind of where we’re at. We’re trying some new things and plugging some people in at different places.
“If nothing else, we had a really good attitude last year. If nothing else, I think teams didn’t like playing our defense last year. We approached games with a certain attitude and played with a little bit of a swagger. And we need to come with that same type of swagger this year.”