Shortly after the 2017 NFL Draft, I asked college coaches of Tennessee Titans rookies to describe their former players using one word.
No one is perhaps more influential on young football players than their coaches. Sure, parents, teammates and significant others can serve as great encouragements, but it is the coaches who have the best on-field relationship with players.
Coaches are more than just teachers of the playbook. They serve as mentors, teachers, and friends. As Hall of Fame WR Steve Largent put it, “I needed somebody to love me, and the people that I chose were my coaches. I would sacrifice my body to be successful for my coaches because I wanted them to love me, to respect me, to have positive feelings about me.”
While this principle is certainly true in the NFL, it is even truer at the collegiate level. In the NFL, players are men, usually with well over $1,000,000 to their names. In college, the players are kids. They aren’t making money, and they are still growing as men. Their coaches serve as the catalyst for that growth.
It is for these reasons that, after the past two NFL Drafts, I have spoken with the college coaches of Titans draftees. Analysts like Mike Mayock, Matt Miller, and Nolan Nawrocki are all tremendous at their jobs, but nobody in front of a television screen or computer knows prospects quite like their coaches do.
Something I always have those coaches do is pick one word that describes what their player will bring to the Tennessee Titans from the first day they are in the building. An example of a previous answer to this question is “reliability,” the word used by University of Massachusetts WR Coach Spencer Whipple to describe Tajaé Sharpe.
This year, I was able to speak with four coaches of Titans draftees.
Russ Huesman, head coach at the University of Richmond, coached guard/center Corey Levin at Tennessee-Chatanooga.
Jeff Brohm, who is in his first year as the head coach of Purdue University, coached receiver Taywan Taylor at Western Kentucky.
UCLA linebackers coach Scott White worked with linebacker Jayon Brown. He also coached fellow Titans LB Aaron Wallace.
Finally, University of Minnesota WR coach Matt Simon, a part of the P.J. Fleck coaching tree, coached receiver Corey Davis at Western Michigan.
G/C Corey Levin
Coach: Russ Huesman (Head Coach)
Selected Word: Durability
"“In 45-straight games, I don’t remember [Corey] getting hurt at all. I remember him being healthy all the time. I remember him playing through a tweak here and there, but nothing major. Every time we played a game, he showed up and played fantastic. There probably are not that many [players] who started 45 games on the offensive line.”"
If Coach Huesman had not chosen “durability” as his word to describe Corey Levin, he likely would have gone with “versatile.” At UTC, Levin started 21 games at left tackle, 29 games at left guard, and one at right tackle. His primary position with the Titans throughout Training Camp and the preseason was center, a position he never played in college.
The Titans clearly are a big fan of Levin. He made the initial 53-man roster on the final cut day and remained on the roster even after the addition of veteran G/C Brian Schwenke. Instead of trying to move Levin to the practice squad, the team released veteran Tim Lelito.
Levin likely will not play as a rookie, since he is behind the aforementioned Schwenke on the depth chart, but his future is certainly bright with the Titans as a backup lineman. His time will come.
WR Taywan Taylor
Coach: Jeff Brohm (Head Coach)
Selected Word: Competitive
"“He’s competitive. I think that’s what you need in all of your top players. He is going to compete everyday. When the lights come on, he’ll get even better. He does not shy away from the big lights; he is a competitive ball player. When you need him to come up with a big play in a big game, he does that, because he competes.”"
In Taywan Taylor, the Titans got an incredibly explosive threat who brings many different abilities to the table. If his first offseason program is any indicator of how his career will pan out, the word “competitive” might be an understatement.
Taylor is clearly a player who likes to have the ball in his hands, and the Titans made a distinct effort throughout the preseason to give him those opportunities. At times, it was mind-boggling how much attention was being given to Taylor by offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie.
The plays designed to get Taylor the ball found their way into the Titans’ regular season opener against the Raiders. On a third down-and-two, Taylor got the ball on a jet sweep and ran for a first down.
He is a special talent, and will hopefully provide the Titans with everything they weren’t able to get from Kendall Wright during his time with the team.
LB Jayon Brown
Coach: Scott White (Position Coach)
Selected Word: Winner
"“[Jayon] is a lunchpail guy, a team-first guy, and a winning football player. He is going to contribute to winning in any capacity. Something that stood out to me about him was that during his first two years here, when he wasn’t playing as much as he would’ve liked, he never complained and he never was negative. He still prepared like a starter everyday.”"
Much like Taylor, Jayon Brown was a star for the Titans during the month of August. From the first day that he put on a helmet and pads, he stood out as someone that could instantly improve the middle of the Titans’ defense.
Brown’s skillset is one that is both unique and very valuable. He is a good tackler, he plays fast, he has tremendous coverage ability, and he is a high-quality special teamer. Typically, when a linebacker has those traits, he goes early in the first round. That was not the case with Brown.
The reason that Brown fell to the fifth round is simple: he is undersized by traditional NFL standards. Despite the recent success of smaller linebackers like Deone Buchanon of the Arizona Cardinals, NFL scouts refused to ignore Brown’s lack of size.
The Titans, however, did decide to ignore it. They traded up to select Brown in the fifth round, and will become the beneficiary of the scouting world’s ignorance. Brown is already the team’s primary nickel linebacker, and his role will only increase from here.
WR Corey Davis
Coach: Matt Simon (Position Coach)
Selected Word: Passion
"‘He has passion not just for the game of football. He has passion for his life, passion for everything that he does. He’s one of those guys that goes about his business, and has since he was a true freshman, in a very professional way. He takes a lot of pride in what he does, and he does it with a lot of passion. He’s a special, special human being.”"
Unlike his rookie counterparts, Corey Davis had a pretty disappointing offseason, especially in the month of August. After he finally signed his rookie contract, Davis was able to practice only a few times before being sidelined with a hamstring injury.
Despite the injury being repeatedly referred to as “week-to-week,” Davis did not take another rep in Training Camp. He dressed for the final preseason game, but never took a snap. Aside from a few nice catches and routes run during the first practices of camp, Davis was unable to do anything to impress fans before the season started.
Once the season started, it was game time. The passion that Coach Simon spoke about was evident from Davis’s first target as an NFL player. His first career catch didn’t come on a dinky crossing pattern or a screen. He had to dive past cornerback David Amerson, who had pretty good coverage on the play, to make an acrobatic catch and land just in bounds.
Davis finished his NFL debut with an impressive stat line of 6 catches for 69 yards. Even at a reported health of only 90%, he showed nimble feet, the ability to separate, and soft hands. If he stays healthy, the NCAA’s all-time leading receiver could become one of the NFL’s best.
NOTE: Coaches for Adoree’ Jackson, Jonnu Smith, and Josh Carraway were unable to be interviewed.