Thursday afternoon’s Training Camp practice for was a mostly quiet one for the Tennessee Titans, aside from news that Johnathan Cyprien will be out for the year due to a torn ACL. Storm clouds in the sky deterred fans, and the pads were off for the first time in a while.

There was, however, one player that made a lot of noise. With Pro Bowl TE Delanie Walker not participating thanks to a scheduled day off, his understudy, Jonnu Smith, was able to get a lot more reps than usual.

With those extra reps, Smith was highly productive. The highlight of the day for the Titans offense was a touchdown reception he made on a deep throw from Marcus Mariota. Smith used his speed to get past the defense and easily score a 60-yard touchdown.

While Thursday’s practice might have been Smith’s best to this point, it certainly wasn’t his first productive one. On Tuesday, he gained around 30 yards on a screen pass, and he has consistently made plays in other practices as well.

When I was talking to Smith after Thursday’s practice, our interview was interrupted by Delanie Walker. He pointed at Smith and said to me, “That guy right there, he’s the man!” Mr. Walker’s playful assertion wasn’t far off from the truth.

The skill set possessed by Smith is a unique one. In a similar way to Redskins tight end Vernon Davis, he is built like a tight end, but runs like a receiver. He is quick and elusive, as evidenced by his elegant 32-yard receiving touchdown on a screen pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars last year.

Smith knows that his combination of size and athleticism is a unique attribute, and he understands that it makes him a big-time matchup problem. “I may have a smaller frame than most traditional tight ends, but I’m also quicker and more versatile. Just using that to create separation and get open.”

In any offense, a tight end is crucial not only in the passing game, but in a team’s ground attack as well. Smith seemed to struggle at times last year in that area of his game, but he says it is definitely improving and headed in the right direction. “I feel like [my blocking] getting there, it’s progressing. That’s just what I’m going to continue to keep doing, getting better every day, working on every element that comes with blocking—hand placement, my footwork, angles, striking. A lot of people think that to block, you have to be a big strong guy, but it’s really about angles.”

The biggest issue with Smith’s rookie season was one that he could not control. Despite not getting very much production from the wide receivers on the outside, former offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie often refused to get Smith involved.

As a result, it was nearly impossible for Smith to get into any sort of rhythm. It was also likely difficult for QB Marcus Mariota to develop chemistry with him.

Now that Smith is fully healthy (he suffered a torn MCL in the Titans’ 2017 season finale against the Patriots) and in-line for a much bigger role within the Titans’ offense, his chemistry with Mariota is developing. “We’ve been building that chemistry over the summer. And coming out here getting to work with the quarterbacks on route timing, building that chemistry. I feel like it’s definitely rising, not just in me, but in all the guys out here.”

Smith won’t start at any point this year barring injury, and that’s obviously the way things should go. Delanie Walker is a proven commodity, and one of the better tight ends in the league. According to Smith, he doesn’t see his backup role as a setback, but rather as an opportunity to soak in Walker’s wealth of experience and knowledge.

“We’ve got a unique skill set at the tight end position, it’s different than most traditional tight ends. Teaching me to use the athleticism that I have, which he has as well, as an advantage. And also off the field, just taking care of your body. The things I see him doing have definitely rubbed off on me.”

Matt LaFleur’s offensive system will likely put a big emphasis on matchups. He may be the backup, but Smith will likely have a sizeable role this season.

He continues to improve every day, and he looks like he will be a viable weapon for Mariota and company in 2018.

Cover image via Titans Online.

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