NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jake Locker has imagined being introduced for the first time as a starting quarterback in the NFL since he was a child.
His moment’s finally here.
Locker debuts as Tennessee’s starting quarterback Sunday in the season opener against the defending AFC champion New England Patriots and two-time NFL MVP Tom Brady. Locker said there’s a little different feeling knowing he’s the starter going into the game, but insists his preparation and approach remain the same.
“The great part about the game of football, although you might be playing at the highest level, the rules are still the same,” Locker said. “The field’s the same size. You’re playing with the same amount of guys on it. It’s meant to be fun. You put in all the hard work … and when you get the opportunity to go out on Sunday, you just have to go out and enjoy it.”
The Titans sat Locker, the eighth selection overall in the 2011 draft out of Washington, last season using veteran Matt Hasselbeck to ease the transition with a new coach in Mike Munchak and no offseason due to the NFL lockout. They responded by going 9-7 and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
Now it’s Locker’s time, and Munchak said his young QB helps give the Titans their best chance to win the AFC South — even if he has growing pains. They also drafted receiver Kendall Wright in the first round and expect Chris Johnson to bounce back from his worst season as a pro.
“He just has to do things that he should, that he’s good at right now,” Munchak said. “Obviously the guys around him, this game isn’t all on his shoulders. I think he realizes that we have a lot of weapons we have to be able to use. But that makes it exciting because I think there are a lot of things we can do with Jake.”
The Patriots won their sixth AFC championship since 1994 last season with Brady throwing for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns but missed out on a fourth Super Bowl trophy with a 21-17 loss to the New York Giants in February. There’s been plenty of changes since that loss, including acquiring Brandon Lloyd as a new deep threat for Brady.
This will be Brady’s 13th season opener. He can’t recall his first but knows how excited he was when he started.
“You only get one season opener, and everything you’ve done for the last eight months is in preparation for this game,” Brady said. “All the spring camps, all the summer practices, training camp, preseason games. I mean this is why you work hard and prepare — for opportunities like this. We all have them. It’s exciting for every player that will take the field.”
It’s the first time these teams have met since New England romped over Tennessee 59-0 in October 2009 during a freak autumn snowstorm.
The Titans want a better start than a year ago when they opened with a loss at Jacksonville after a frantic few weeks where coaches and players were busy just learning names. Complex offensive and defensive schemes were left until the offseason.
“We feel good about where we’re at,” Munchak said. “There’s no reason we should not be on the same page in all the things we’ll be doing on Sunday, and nothing should hold us back. We’ll go out there and play our best and expect to win when we play.”
The Patriots have won eight straight openers, the longest active streak in the NFL. They still have Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski along with Aaron Hernandez for Brady to throw to from an offense that was the NFL’s second-best in 2011 rolling up 428 yards per game.
How well they protect Brady could be an issue. Left guard Logan Mankins is expected to play after offseason knee surgery, but right guard Brian Waters hasn’t shown up yet. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is on the injury report with back problems.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the linemen who will play have experience and are working well together.
“It is always a challenge to block any front in the NFL, particularly an active one like Tennessee,” Belichick said. “I think those guys have worked hard and done a good job. We will see where we are at come Sunday afternoon.”
Tennessee signed Kamerion Wimbley to play end and anchor a young defensive line. He had 16 sacks in his last two seasons in Oakland, and he’s ready to chase Brady.
“He’s done fantastic things over his career, so this will be a big challenge for us and a great opportunity to see where we stand going into the regular season,” Wimbley said.