In his first two NFL seasons, Marc Mariani has made his living as one of the NFL’s top kick returners. He made the Pro Bowl his rookie year as the AFC’s top return man and enjoyed another productive season on special teams in 2011.
But Mariani has bigger goals, including a desire to be on the field Sunday afternoons catching passes.
And he’s working hard to make his case.
Prior to joining the Titans as a seventh-round pick in 2010, Mariani ended his collegiate career as the most prolific receiver and all-purpose player in Montana history, setting school marks in career receiving yards (3,018) and receiving touchdowns (29). His 164 receptions and 200 career points rank seventh in the Grizzlies’ record book.
But playing fifth-string behind Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins with the Titans, Mariani’s opportunities have been limited on offense. His five career receptions for 24 yards all came last season, however, he’s hoping that will change.
With Britt still sidelined by knee issues and top draft pick Kendall Wright not yet signed, Mariani is receiving extra reps early on in training camp, an opportunity the third-year pro is looking to take full advantage of.
“Every rep I can get is huge for me,” Mariani said after Monday’s practice. “I don’t have a lot of game day experience, but playing against our DBs every day is the best competition I can get. They are top notch, so it’s making me better. I want to do the best I can with every rep I get and improve every day.”
Mariani, whose playing style has drawn comparisons to New England’s Wes Welker, said he took advantage of his first full NFL off-season, taking notes from veterans like Washington, while talking every day with receivers coach Dave Ragone.
“It’s been fun learning things from them to build my game,” Mariani said. “Now I’m out there working and not thinking as much, just playing fast and the game is coming to me a lot better. I’m just trying to improve and do my part so I can help out on Sundays.”
Head coach Mike Munchak said Mariani’s teammates have taken notice.
“The quarterbacks have confidence in him, I know that,” Munchak said. “I think he’s developed a confidence in himself that he knows how to make adjustments. He’s not limited to a couple of routes or couple of plays, maybe as we had last year with him. The confidence now is that he can do a lot more, and we’ll have to see what happens, especially during the preseason.”
The exhibition games will give Mariani an opportunity to prove he’s more than just a kick returner — even if he is one of the NFL’s best.
“Obviously, I’ve made my way in the return game so far, but I think of myself as a receiver,” Mariani said. “I’m a hard worker and I want to be out there catching passes on Sunday for sure. I’m extremely competitive and I want to be the best that I can be. It means a lot to me and I take pride in it.”
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