The success of Tennessee’s 2011 draft class is well documented, and no rookie shined more last season than fourth-round draft pick Colin McCarthy.
After receiving considerable playing time while filling in for injured starter Barrett Rudd down the stretch, McCarthy appears poised to take over the starting middle linebacker job for the Titans heading into the 2012 season.
“We thought he came on in a big way last year,” head coach Mike Munchak told reporters at last week’s NFL scouting combine.
As a rookie, McCarthy tallied 76 tackles, a team-leading eight tackles for loss, one quarterback pressure, one interception, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in just 13 games (seven starts).
Not bad for a player who was initially projected to primarily help out on special teams his first season.
“When he came in we thought he would be more of a special teamer for sure and maybe help us with some depth at the inside positions — at the “Will” and the “Mike” linebacker — but we had some injuries and he came in and played very well,” Munchak said. “You saw he made plays. He found a way to knock the ball loose, create some fumbles and make some interceptions. He took control and didn’t act like a rookie out there.”
That was never more evident than in Week 13 at Buffalo when McCarthy notched 11 tackles, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and a pass defensed in a 23-17 victory. He was named both the AFC Defensive Player of the Week and NFL Rookie of the Week for his performance.
“There’s always room to improve,” McCarthy said. “I tried to take advantage of the opportunities I had to make plays. As a middle linebacker, you’ve got to get everybody lined up, you’ve got to make the calls and I tried to do that this year.”
With Ruud set to become a free agent, Munchak seems confident in the abilities of his second-year linebacker.
“He has some learning to do – he’s a young man – but we’re excited about his progression, the way he finished the season and the energy he brings to the defense,” Munchak said. “Everything is a plus with him. He is the kind of player you love to have on your football team, and we’re excited about what he’s going to be able to do in the future.”
Even Munchak was surprised by how much McCarthy was able to stay on the field. But the more he and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray saw McCarthy produce, the more comfortable they felt having him on the field for all three downs.
“He runs the nickel defense very well and we used him in that role,” Munchak said. “You never know how a young rookie is going to respond, but his first start was in Carolina and he came in and did a great job for us on the road getting us in position. I think it was probably one of the best defensive games we played all year against a very explosive offense, and Colin handled it very well.”
McCarthy said he’s looking forward to building off his rookie campaign, both personally and as a team.
“I just need to continue to work on everything — studying the playbook, studying offenses and defenses,” he said. “I still have a lot to prove. Every week you have to prove yourself.”
And he’ll do so on a team he believes is on the rise under Munchak.
“The attitude coach Munchak brings to the players, you see results. You see guys working, guys pushing each other throughout the locker room it gets exciting,” McCarthy said. “9-7 was a good start for our first year, but we want to improve on that next season.”
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