Old habits apparently die hard. The Tennessee Titans are now equipped with maybe the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL after adding Julio Jones to A.J. Brown.
But early in training camp, while those guys are getting their share of deserved attention, an underdog receiver is also drawing rave reviews.
Racey McMath, a sixth-round pick out of LSU who spent most of his college career watching Justin Jefferson and JaMarr Chase play ahead of him, turned heads with a nice catch on the first day of camp and has been holding his own ever since.
Of course, while there is reason for excitement, Titans fans for years have allowed themselves to get excited over late-round picks or even undrafteds who flash then disappear, showing why they were late rounders or undrafted in the first place.
Name like Biren Ealy, Jake Schifino, Eddie Berlin or Tre McBride might ring a bell for longtime Titans fans.
McMath has size (6-2, 211) and a 4.34 time in the 40 on his pro day at LSU, but he knows he needs a lot of things to go his way to force his way onto the 53-man roster in a crowded Titans receiver room.
“I just want to make the best of my opportunities,’’ McMath says. “That’s No. 1, and really just find a role to compete with those veteran guys. That’s where I’m at right now.’’
While McMath faces an uphill climb, there is a patron saint of Titans long-shot receivers – one man who probably unfairly raised the expectations of the others mentioned above by bucking the odds to become a standout in Tennessee back in 2001.
Drew Bennett knows all about the challenge McMath is facing this camp. He earned his way onto the 53-man roster 20 years ago and went on to be a 1,000-yard receiver in 2004 during a seven-year NFL career.
Not bad for an undrafted college quarterback out of UCLA who had just one team willing to take a chance on him.
“It’s tough, especially as a sixth-rounder and lower, right?’’ Bennett explains. “The first- through third-rounders, they get their one play in seven-on-seven in the first day of camp. The two-on-two, they put you in there, and if you drop a ball or run a wrong route, they yell at you and they fix you and you get to try to do it again.
“If you’re a sixth-rounder or later, an undrafted guy like myself, if you make a mistake, guess what. They’re not going to put you back in there, and that might have been your chance.
“It’s a very interesting dynamic in trying to get noticed.”
So far, McMath has been heeding the advice Bennett lived through. That ramps up even more as the Titans will begin practicing in pads this week after being in helmets and shorts the first four practices.
McMath is already turning heads and doing good things. Now, the challenge is to keep it up. Fellow receiver Brown even offered up this lofty nugget about McMath.
“Racey, to be honest, I don’t want to say this, but he kind of reminds me of Julio,” Brown says. “That’s the upside I think he has in him.”
That is quite the expectation for the 205th pick in this year’s draft, but at least McMath, who also figures to have to play a lot on special teams, is getting himself noticed with his play and practice habits.
“Racey (McMath) is a hungry kid,’’ offensive coordinator Todd Downing says. “It is awesome to watch him work. He loves coming to work and getting out here early, putting in the extra time to try to learn the techniques we ask him to do.
“Really excited about where he is at and the progression he has made. I think (receivers coach) Rob Moore is doing a great job with him, getting him acclimated to our system and excited to see what his future looks like.”
Even Mike Vrabel has been complimentary of the rookie early on.
“He is fun to coach, man,” the Titans head coach says. “He just keeps getting better. He has a unique skillset, he is big, he is fast, he is coachable.
“Again, he takes a rep over there in the open field tackling drill as a receiver, obviously we are projecting him for a major special teams role, so he goes over there and is taking reps in the open field tackle on defense. Takes the coaching, doesn’t miss a beat, bounces around.
“He has been fun to coach, and like I said he has a unique skillset just the size standpoint and his speed.’’
McMath says his focus is simply knowing what to do and then playing fast when the opportunity comes his way.
“First, is knowing my assignment so I can go out there and play fast. When you’re playing fast and you know what you’re doing, it makes it a lot easier for you,” McMath points out.
Bennett readily agrees with McMath’s approach, saying, “If you run the wrong route in the one time you get in, it really can damage your next week of camp.”
Bennett says confidence is key, and that building on that confidence every day in practice and preseason games can be very beneficial.
“Confidence is everything in all sports,’’ Bennett explains. “But all you need the first day is to have one little good thing happen where you beat the No. 2 corner on a post route for a touchdown in one-on-ones. Or you have a nice catch and run in seven-on-sevens. Confidence is very powerful.’’
McMath says he is simply trying to focus and do things as best as possible as he attempts to earn himself a role with the Titans as a rookie. He’s taking nothing for granted, he adds, and is always focusing on ways to improve.
“It’s going OK. I can always do better. I’ve been picking out a lot of things that I’ve got to focus on. I go back and watch the film and even after practice, I’m thinking about the practice of how I should have done this instead of this,” McMath says.
Terry McCormick publishes TitanInsider.com and appears 2-4 p.m. weekdays on the George Plaster Show on WNSR-AM 560/95.9 FM.