Will Witherspoon knows his course list by heart.
There’s languages (“You just have to make sure the terminology is the same”). There’s math (“You put two and two together and you can really work through a lot”). There’s sociology (“It’s interacting with the guys on the field”).
In some ways, it’s remedial work for the 29-year-old linebacker, who has played 127 games in the National Football League with three different teams. The lessons also are imperative, though, for one of the newest members of the Tennessee Titans’ defense as he tries to integrate himself into the scheme and replace Keith Bulluck, one of the team’s most productive and popular players of recent years.
The crash course continues this week, when Titans veterans come together for the second round of this season’s “organized team activities,” which will continue through June. It is an important time for any newcomer and provides a foundation for the more intensive training camp in late July.
“It’s finally starting to build that trust and how things come together and how it keeps going,” Witherspoon said. “Basically you get on the field and get things done all together, and really start working together and really get a feel for how guys play, what the conversation’s like on the field.
“That’s what makes a big difference.”
Making the grade
Witherspoon completed a similar course of study previously in his career and passed with flying colors.
Drafted out of the University of Georgia by the Carolina Panthers in 2002, he changed teams for the first time in 2006, when he signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Rams. He set a career high with 99 tackles and had three sacks, which matched his career best, in his first season with the Rams. The following season he more than doubled his sack total to seven.
Last fall he changed teams again, but he didn’t have the benefit of “summer school.” He was traded to Philadelphia near the trade deadline, after having played six games with the Rams. He stepped right into the Eagles’ lineup and played two different positions over the next 11 weeks.
He still finished sixth among the Eagles with 68 total tackles, and his 53 solo stops were the third-highest on the team.
Now with his third team in a little more than a year, Witherspoon has a clear understanding of how to make the transition and to use what he already knows to learn what he must do with his new team.
“You have to balance what you’re learning with what you know and how you approach the situation,” he said. “I’ve been in enough defensive schemes at this point that you just have to make sure the terminology is the same.”
The next class
Witherspoon signed a three-year contract with the Titans in March. It was the first step in what has become a retooling of the defense.
Since then, defensive end Jason Babin and cornerback Tye Hill have been added through free agency and have given the team a new, veteran presence in each of the three primary areas of the defense: line, linebacker and secondary.
Gone is defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who signed as a free agent with Detroit. Currently unsigned and rehabbing a serious knee injury is linebacker Bulluck.
“[The newcomers] have been here, and they have been doing well,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “Will has just stepped right in, and he is what we thought he was. He has tremendous skills, and he is going to be a great addition to our defense.”
The key is for him to be an effective replacement for Bulluck.
A first-round pick in 2000, Bulluck missed only three games in 10 seasons with Tennessee, and as a starting linebacker for the past eight, he averaged a little more than 123 tackles per season. He had 125 stops for five straight seasons beginning in 2002.
“Everybody knows what kinds of players those guys are, what they brought to this team and how long they’d been here,” Witherspoon said. “Those guys were well-established here. For them not to be here is a change. I’ve been through a couple little shifts like that myself, to see entrenched players come and go.
“The next guy has to come in and step up. That’s part of what I plan on doing.”
Over the last decade, the Titans have had success finding starting linebackers through free agency.
Most recently, they signed Ryan Fowler as a restricted free agent from Dallas. He started 14 games in his first season in Tennessee (2007) and made a career high 73 tackles.
The Titans’ leading tackler that season was David Thornton, a free agent addition the previous offseason. The first time Thornton made more than 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons were the first two he played with Tennessee.
Before them was Randall Godfrey, who plugged in at middle linebacker in 2000 and had a team-leading (and career-high) 189 tackles as he led the Titans defense to the No. 1 overall ranking in terms of yards allowed.
The concern is that Witherspoon is older than any of those others when the Titans signed them. Thus, there exists the risk that he might be on the downside of his career rather than prepared to graduate to a higher level of performance.
“I expect I’m going to make some mistakes at this point,” Witherspoon said. “It’s the first couple of practices. As things go, it’s going to get a lot smoother, and things are going to work out a lot better for everyone. That’s part of what I have to do.”