NASHVILLE, Tenn. » Tennessee cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Ryan Mouton are back, having survived their rookie trial by touchdowns.
Injuries forced the first-year players to start in just their sixth NFL game last season — a 59-0 rout at New England last October as the Titans stumbled to an 0-6 start.
The Titans are taking no chances this year making sure there’s plenty of depth in the secondary to go with three starters who were Pro Bowlers in 2008. They signed former No. 1 draft pick Tye Hill, kept Rod Hood and drafted Alterraun Verner out of UCLA in the fourth round to find someone to start opposite Cortland Finnegan.
However, once again the Titans have been beset with injuries, turning this into a three-man race.
Hood tore an anterior cruciate ligament in June, and Hill was sidelined until yesterday by a strained hamstring, with McCourty and Mouton getting lots of work. Fisher isn’t concerned, but don’t expect a decision on the new starter until perhaps as late as the fourth preseason game Sept. 2.
"At the end of the process, we’ll make a decision," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Whoever ends up as the third and fourth corner, we’ve really upgraded the position."
An improved secondary is a must for Tennessee, a defense that ranked 31st with 258.7 yards passing allowed per game in 2009. The Titans finished with 20 interceptions, but proved no match against the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Matt Schaub or Philip Rivers.
Mouton, the third-round pick in 2009 out of Hawaii, started training camp working with the first-team defense.
Not that the honor of being first matters much, because he has rotated daily with McCourty, the sixth-round pick in 2009 out of Rutgers, and Verner. The trio also have been learning to work both the right and left cornerback spots, with the Titans wanting the flexibility of matching Finnegan on opponents’ top receivers when they want.
"Whether I’m with the 1s or the 2s, I’m out there trying to make plays so I can try to improve on my game so I can continue to get better as a football player," McCourty said.
Each of the cornerbacks have their strengths and weaknesses, leading to good and bad days.
Secondary coach Marcus Robertson sees maturity and hard-won experience for both Mouton and McCourty. But he said the 5-foot-9 Mouton must be more consistent with his ability to do the job. The 6-foot McCourty has been very consistent, and both have impressed with how they survived the ignominy that was the loss in New England — a video neither has watched.
"That’s one of those things we put that behind us and let that be as it was," Mouton said.
Hill returned to practice yesterday from his hamstring injury, and Fisher said the 15th pick overall in 2006 was making lots of plays before he was hurt. He expects Hill to tap into his experience once he’s back on the practice field.
But Verner might have a chance to work his way into the spot before the season’s over. He had four interceptions during the first week of training camp, and the defensive back who had 13 interceptions at UCLA already has a nickname. He also popped tight end Sean Ryan yesterday, breaking up a catch.
"He’s familiar with the system playing under DeWayne Walker out at UCLA," Robertson said. "One thing you have to love about him he consistently makes plays. He’s kind of like a ball magnet. Each of them have their pluses and minuses. We have to continue to work on some of those negatives and make them strengths."
Safety Chris Hope, the veteran of the secondary going into his ninth season, said the best thing about this competition is the Titans will wind up with more than one starter.
"In case God forbids anything happens to anyone in the back end, we’ll have someone ready to fill in," he said.