NASHVILLE, Tenn. >> The Tennessee Titans’ youth movement is in overdrive as their season winds down.
It started with quarterback Marcus Mariota and the Titans have played a total of 14 rookies already this season, and they played 12 in their 30-8 loss at the New York Jets — four starting on offense. Coaches are watching closely to ensure they keep improving. Interim coach Mike Mularkey says they came close to having as many as seven rookies on the field last week if a particular play had been called.
It’s a full-blown on-the-job training session.
“They’re learning in the heat of the battle, which I think is the best way to learn,” Mularkey said. “We can do whatever we want on the practice field, but the best experience, the best way they’re going to get better is to have live reps in games against really good opponents. The good ones, the guys that are going to keep progressing will takes these reps and again, they’ll be better next week. But this is not a bad thing that’s taking place with these guys.”
The young Titans (3-10) face possibly their toughest test Sunday with a trip to New England (11-2). The Patriots have played, and started, some rookies themselves. Shaq Mason has started eight games at left guard, while David Andrews started the first 10 games at center.
New England also has Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick as coach, but Belichick said Wednesday that nobody is a rookie at this point of the season.
“We tell our rookies, ‘You’ve got to start playing like veterans. You’re not rookies anymore,’” Belichick said. “When does a rookie stop being a rookie, 13 games? Obviously, experience is a great thing but so is youth and once you get past that certain point of knowing how to play, knowing how to prepare, having enough experience in your system with your teammates then you start to turn the corner. I’d say that the young guys on the Titans have done a good job of that.”
Mariota obviously has gotten most of the attention with the Titans, and he has started 11 games this season throwing for 2,786 yards with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He is a TD pass away from becoming just the 10th rookie in NFL history with at least 20 TD passes in a season, and he needs 214 yards for Tennessee’s first 3,000-yard passing season since 2011.
For someone who had just collected his Heisman Trophy and was preparing for a bowl game with Oregon at this time a year ago, Mariota says he isn’t mentally tired with three games still remaining.
“I enjoy this game, I love it,” Mariota said. “I mean it’s truly a blessing to be able to wake up and do something that you’re passionate about. I don’t ever get the feeling of being tired. I enjoy the preparation, the process of it. For me, I just take it for what it’s worth and take each single day as they come.”
The other rookie starters on offense include center Andy Gallik, undrafted rookie free agent Quinton Spain at left guard and wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham subbing for veteran Kendall Wright. Fullback Jalston Fowler, running back David Cobb and recent addition receiver Andrew Turzilli also played against the Jets.
“We’re learning as it goes, and guys are going out there putting out their best effort,” Mariota said. “That’s all you can ask. We’ll learn and grow.”
Notes: Four Titans did not practice Wednesday with LB Derrick Morgan (left shoulder) listed only because Tennessee has yet to place him on injured reserve. NT Sammie Hill (right knee), DT Mike Martin (knee), S Da’Norris Searcy (hamstring) and WR Kendall Wright (ribs).
AP NFL websites: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP—NFL
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker