NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans have liked what they've seen in two seasons from Colin McCarthy.
The thing is, they just haven’t seen the middle linebacker enough for their liking.
Ditto that feeling for McCarthy, who exploded onto the scene to earn the starting slot two seasons ago as a rookie and unheralded fourth-round draft pick out of Miami (Fla.). By the time 2012 rolled around, his defensive teammates thought highly enough of McCarthy to vote him captain.
But 2012 didn't turn out exactly as McCarthy planned. He injured his left ankle in the season opener and struggled when he was made inactive for four of the first seven games. When he finally made it back, he suffered a concussion and didn’t play in the final four games.
"That’s my goal — to play all 16 games — and, obviously, be healthy and be available when my number is called," said McCarthy on Thursday, claiming to have no ill effects from either injury that plagued him last season.
That would be a huge benefit for a Titans defense that yielded a league-worst 471 points last season, setting a franchise record for defensive futility. While playing only 34 percent of the team's defensive snaps, the 6-foot-1, 238-pounder still had 45 tackles and a 49-yard interception return for a touchdown against Miami.
"I'm feeling good," McCarthy said. "It's good to get back out there on the field and get these injuries behind me and just focus on my game, making sure of technique and assignments and be on top of my game."
Titans head coach Mike Munchak has been pleased with McCarthy's progress during Organized Team Activities. The club will conclude spring drills next week with a three-day minicamp (Tuesday through Thursday) before taking off until training camp in late July.
"I think Colin is doing well," said Munchak, who had a disappointing 6-10 record with the Titans in 2012. "This is exactly what he needed, getting out here and feeling healthy again. That’s a relief for him, just out here playing football again and learning.
"I am just happy to have him out here. It’s all business. He has been out here every day and working hard.”
Still, there is the notion that McCarthy is injury prone. As a rookie, he injured a hamstring in the fifth game against Pittsburgh and missed the next three outings. But when he returned, McCarthy started seven of the last eight games and finished the season with 78 tackles, including a team-high eight tackles for loss, one interception, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
"I’m focusing on being healthy and doing everything to prevent injuries," said McCarthy, who had surgery on his right ankle following last season. He also had three shoulder surgeries early during his college playing days before playing 25 games the last two seasons at Miami.
"Football is a physical game,” he added. "Things are going to happen. I’m just trying to put those injuries behind me and move forward.”
While McCarthy is solidly entrenched as the starter at middle linebacker, the Titans also signed an insurance policy, Moise Fokou, the former Colts (2012) and Eagles (2009-11) backup middle linebacker.
Still, it is McCarthy who needs to stay healthy and play an entire season because of all the variables he brings to the defense, especially big-play capabilities.
"There is a natural thing Colin has for the big play," Titans linebackers coach Chet Parlavecchio said. "There are times during the game when he makes the right decision to make the big play. He has great hands. He has good instincts. He has a knack for the big play."
McCarthy agreed with his position coach about the knack for making the big play.
"It's just instincts and watching film and reading my keys and believing my keys and reacting,” he said. “You put the work in and then just try to reap the advantages of it."
What Parlavecchio wants to see now, though, is a consistent effort from McCarthy not only during games, but an entire season.
"The part of his game that he has to improve on is the consistency – the play in and play out behavior,” Parlavecchio said. “In other words, he has to play the same on every play. When he develops the consistency in his game, there are no boundaries for how good can he be.”
The Titans are currently listing nine linebackers on their two-deep depth chart, so talent and depth at all three linebacker slots are considered team strengths. Third-year veteran Akeem Ayers, the team's leading tackler last season, is back on the strong side, while second-year player Zach Brown, who was third on the team in stops, returns to the weak side.
"They are a great group of guys," Parlavecchio said. "We use the analogy of the Boston Bruins. What makes the Boston Bruins so good and playing for the Stanley Cup?
"It's when they roll four lines at you, all four lines are exactly identical. You can't tell the first line from the fourth line. That’s the way we are going to be.”
But certainly it all starts at linebacker with having a healthy and productive McCarthy back in the middle.
"It is someone who makes plays and gets the attention of the rest of the defense and be a person the rest of the team can rally around," McCarthy said of what it takes to be a good linebacker in the NFL. "I don't think you need to be very vocal. Obviously, with making your calls, you need to be confident in making your calls.
"It's just going out there and playing football. At this level, guys want to see you produce. Guys want to see you make plays. And that’s how you gain the respect of your teammates and coaches."