NASHVILLE — It was early in the second quarter of Saturday's exhibition game between the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium when a name quite familiar to University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football fans made the defensive play of the opening half.
Storming in from the right side of the defensive line, Isaiah Mack ferociously knocked Pats reserve quarterback Brian Hoyer to the ground for a resounding sack that brought the home crowd to its feet, cheering and clapping in a way usually reserved for a regular-season contest.
Then again, these were the defending world champion Patriots the Titans were playing.
And you wonder why Mike Keith, the longtime Voice of the Titans, had observed less than two hours earlier: "Mack's been really good at rushing the passer. He's really slippery."
According to Keith, about to begin his 22nd season as the Titans' radio play-by-play man, all of the Titans have been looking really good this preseason, including a trio of former Mocs led by third-year professional offensive lineman Corey Levin, plus Mack and fellow rookie Kareem Orr, who's attempting to make the team at defensive back.
"Corey is really good, and he's made himself better every year," Keith said. "He's consistently drawn praise from the coaches during fall camp."
It's what Keith said about Mack and Orr that should probably most surprise and excite Mocs Nation, however.
"They're in it (a hunt for a roster spot) — 100%," Keith said. "They're out there every day battling and scrapping, just showing up. That's all you can do. It guarantees you nothing, but it keeps you in the middle of it."
Keith expects the Titans to be in the middle of the playoff hunt all season.
"Really excited," said Keith, who lived in Chattanooga during his youth. "Watching them work, it's a good football team. It was a good football team last year that came within one win of making the playoffs. Now you see them building on those positives heading into this season."
Of course, Keith also knows you can be better and still finish worse than the previous year.
As he said of his initial assessment, "What does that (improvement) translate to? I don't know."
At least part of that caution is because he believes the AFC South has become the toughest division in pro football.
"Only division in the NFL that had three teams with winning records last year," noted Keith, who quickly added, "also the only division where all four teams have reached the postseason at least once over the last two years."
That said, the Titans have a lot of their core group back on both sides of the ball, including Marcus Mariota at quarterback and free safety Kevin Byard and his fat new contract on defense.
"Marcus is in a position to take the next step," Keith of the fifth-year Titan and 2014 Heisman Trophy winner. "He's had 12 game-winning drives. He's shown what he can do against the Aaron Rodgers and Tom Bradys of the world. The big question is 'Can he stay healthy?' I think he's really done all he can to help himself in that area. He's noticeably thicker, especially in his lower body. The minute he walked out of here last winter it's clear that he went to work to make himself stronger and more durable."
As if on cue, Mariota got the Titans on the scoreboard first Saturday with a perfectly thrown ball to Delanie Walker, then showed off that thicker physique by a hurdling a Patriots defender for a two-point conversion that put the home team on top 8-0.
Yet Mariota's first score was only slightly more impressive than the work being turned in daily by the UTC trio of Levin, Mack and Orr, though such praise is rarely heaped on a couple of undrafted free agent signees from a Football Championship Subdivision program such as UTC three weeks into preseason camp. Yet the 6-foot-1, 299-pound Mack — signed on May 10 — and the 5-11, 195-pound Orr (who signed May 13) have been anything but typical free agents to date.
"They didn't come in and have to learn how to compete," Keith said. "Mack can really get to the passer, and Orr's knocking down a lot of passes in the secondary. Everybody associated with the Chattanooga program should be so proud."
This is not to say either ultimately will make the team.
As Keith also noted, as the regular season draws closer, you're not only competing with everyone at your position on your team for a roster spot, but you're also "competing with a group of players on the back end of all 32 rosters."
That said, "they're making the most of their opportunity."
So is former East Ridge High School and Wofford University star JoJo Tillery, who intercepted a pass against Philadelphia in the Titans' exhibition win over the Philadelphia Eagles the week before.
"High school football across the state of Tennessee has dramatically improved in recent years," Keith said. "We're finding more and more quality players who grew up in this state cheering for the Titans."
It may be next month before we know how many, if any, former Mocs will make the Titans' regular-season roster. In addition to his sack, Mack was credited with two shared tackles in the opening half. Orr has been a practice sensation from day one. Levin currently appears to be a lock.
"I just know that when I call their name a lot," Keith said, "that means they know what they're supposed to do."
And whether they ultimately make it or not, the fact that Levin, Mack, Orr and Tillery are repeatedly showing that they know what they're supposed to do should make everyone who loves football in Chattanooga more than a little proud, regardless of which high school or college is their favorite team.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.