Wiedmer: Hunter ready to carry extra weight for Titans

Wiedmer: Hunter ready to carry extra weight for Titans

May 17th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Titans football players Justin Hunter, from left, and Kendall Wrigh sign autographs for fans at Academy Sports on Friday in Chattanooga. The Titans caravan came to town for fans to meet and get signatures from a few players.

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

Patrick Mahn stands with Wilson Hagan as they get Titans player Justin Hunter's, 15, signature on Friday, May 16, 2014, at Academy Sports in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Titans caravan came to town for fans to meet and get signatures from a few players.

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

In one of his first encounters with new Tennessee Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt, second-year wide receiver Justin Hunter was told, "You need to gain weight."

After the gangly former University of Tennessee wideout reached 200 pounds for the first time in his life, the Wiz said, "You need to gain more weight."

When a steady diet of Popeye's spicy fried chicken, among other rich foods, added another five or six pounds to Hunter's still-frail frame, Whisenhunt replied, "Good, but keep going."

Said Hunter on Friday during the Titans Caravan stop at Academy Sports + Outdoors at Hamilton Place: "I've picked up 13 to 14 pounds in all. I'm up to 206-207. I'm just trying not to get on the coach's bad side."

Ask Hunter, fellow wideout Kendall Wright or Voice of the Titans Mike Keith and they'll all say they've yet to see a bad side to Whisenhunt, who became just the franchise's third head coach since it relocated from Houston in 1997 when he replaced Mike Munchak following last season's 7-9 finish.

"He's really going to spread the offense around," said Wright, a third-year pro who's already caught 158 passes and six touchdowns. "He's going to put lots of playmakers in lots of spots."

Said Keith: "Having been a head coach, Ken comes in with a plan, and he's instituting that plan ever day. There's no trial and error. He knows what he wants."

That's not to say that what Whisenhunt wants won't change from week to week.

"Lots of versatility," Keith said of the former Georgia Tech player who coached the Arizona Cardinals to a narrow loss to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII. "He wants to exploit matchups. That's what he did so well as San Diego's offensive coordinator last year. One week we may throw it all over the field. The next we may run it the whole game.

"That's how the Chargers went from 27th in the league in offense in 2012 to fifth last year. That's how he was named the assistant coach of the year."

It's not just on offense that change will be noticeable. Determined to ramp up a pass defense that was 21st in the NFL last season and recorded only 36 sacks, Whisenhunt has switched to the 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

Still, it's the offense that should most impress, especially since the Titans used the No. 11 pick in last week's NFL draft on offensive left tackle Taylor Lewan, its second-round pick on Washington running back Bishop Sankey and its sixth-round pick on LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

Of Mettenberger, who may have the most accurate arm in this class, Keith said, "A lot of people think it's a steal. Low risk, high reward is how our scouts have termed it."

How's this for possible high reward: New England Patriots QB Tom Brady, he of the three Super Bowl rings, was also a sixth-rounder.

Throw in such free-agent signees as linebacker Shaun Phillips, linebacker Wesley Woodyard, right tackle Michael Oher of "Blind Side" fame and running back, wideout and return specialist Dexter McCluster and there's obvious reason for excitement in the Music City.

"We spent $100 million on the free-agent market last year and another $60 million this year," Keith said. "The talent upgrade is obvious. We were much better last year than the previous season, and we're going to be better this year than last year."

Added Wright: "You look around our training facility and it's obvious. We're getting players in our locker room who just want to win and know how to win."

Of course, to win big the Titans need a big year from quarterback Jake Locker, who's coming off a hip injury as he enters his fourth season.

"Jake's looking great," Wright said. "He's ahead of schedule. He really looks good throwing the ball."

Every team looks good and sounds good in May. But within an AFC South that remains in flux, the Titans would appear to have the necessary ingredients to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008 if Locker can remain healthy all season.

"I think they're going to be be good, especially Hunter," said 30-year-old fan Shane Turner, whose No. 1 allegiance remains with Hunter's college team. "But this was fun. I think it's so great they come [to Chattanooga] each year. I even got to ask Justin how the Vols would do, and he said he thought they'd be pretty good."

Hunter's plan to become pretty good with the Titans is to keep lifting plenty of weights and Popeye's spicy fried chicken.

"The greasier the better," he said with a laugh.

Such talk may keep him off Whisenhunt's bad side, but it may not do much for Hunter's popularity with his potentially jealous heftier fans from Memphis to Morristown.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com