Last season, the Tennessee Titans run game was third in the NFL overall, and a lot of credit rightfully so went to the running backs and offensive line.
But when accolades were handed out, Titans coach Mike Mularkey – a former tight end and tight ends coach himself – always pointed out the contributions made by the blocking tight ends to the running game.
There was a major question mark at the outset of last season when veteran Craig Stevens retired in training camp, leaving veteran Anthony Fasano to fill the role of the second tight end and primary blocker.
Fasano thrived in that role, and the Titans wanted to re-sign him, but the veteran departed Tennessee for a second run in Miami, leaving the Titans with a different player in that primary role for the third year in a row.
Enter Jonnu Smith, a third-round pick from Florida International, who has inherited the role. Smith, while not yet in the class of Stevens or Fasano as a blocker, at least came to the Titans with a working knowledge, having blocked in a pro-style offense in college.
“It’s a lot of carryover, but also there are a lot of things that are different,” Smith said. “Of course, this is an NFL system, so when I first got here, I knew there was going to be a lot of adjustments with the terminology and things. But some things were kind of similar and I was able to take advantage of it.”
The Titans’ run game has not been as consistent this season, though Tennessee is still 11th in the league in rushing. There are a number of factors at work in the drop-off of the run-game’s production, as the line has not played as well and running back DeMarco Murray has battled injuries for most of the season.
Having a rookie blocking tight end working in the base two-tight end package has been a factor as well.
Mularkey admits that Smith is not a true end line blocker like Stevens was, but thinks he can eventually develop the savvy that Fasano used so effectively last season.
“It’s definitely been a factor. I wouldn’t say that Anthony was a dominant guy, but Anthony kind of knew the tricks of the trade,” Mularkey said. “He could get by with just being smart and crafty. He’s been in the league for a long time and knowing how without knocking a guy off the ball but how to get position on a guy. That’s something Jonnu – he’s a rookie – is kind of learning the ropes. Eventually, if he has the years that Anthony Fasano has had that’ll help because he’ll have seen all the things he possibly could see.”
Mularkey said that true blocking tight ends are difficult to find, especially given the way college offenses are tailored nowadays with the spread. So finding a tight end like Smith, who, while not a point-of-attack tight end, can be developed into a solid blocker.
“You can put them in three categories – pass receiving tight ends, a blocker and guys that can do both, but maybe not one as good as the other,” Mularkey said. “Jonnu I think can develop into that. (Phillip) Supernaw is kind of a tweener. Jonnu has done the best job he can being the guy that we’re putting in that position for a rookie. He’s having to block some defensive ends. I think he’s gonna get better at it. But there are very few Craig Stevens and Mark Brunners in the league.”
It is a role Smith accepts willingly, and one he knows will require improvement.
“It’s not easy, but it’s going to help this team. I’m just doing my job and trying to be the best at it and just looking to improve every day,” Smith said. “I actually enjoy doing it. Whatever is going to put this team in position to win, I’ll take that role.”
The Titans did not have any players to miss practice Wednesday as they return from a mini-bye and prepare to play at Indianapolis on Sunday.
“That might be a first for me,” Mularkey said of having no one miss practice in week 12. “I’d say that’s a rarity but I give the players a lot of credit for putting us in that position, and our training staff and our strength staff. A lot of work goes in to keeping these guys healthy, but the players have to spend some time on their own to put themselves in this position to – I mean, full strength, there’s bumps and bruises on everybody in the league. But, we’ve got nobody being held out of practice.”