Marc Mariani has said all year that once training camp started, his biggest value to the Tennessee Titans, and his best shot at making their 53-man roster was still as a punt and kick returner.
Yes, Mariani, despite two difficult injuries the last two years, has made big strides at wide receiver, and he is fighting every single day to be a part of the Titans' wide receiver core. But he also knows he was once a Pro Bowl return man, and he's using this training camp to make that fact clear.
And Friday night in New Orleans, Mariani got that opportunity and then some.
In Tennessee's second preseason game, the former Havre Blue Pony star returned three kickoffs for 90 yards, including an average of 30 yards per kick return in what was a 31-24 loss to the Saints. Mariani also returned one punt for six yards, as he took every kick and punt in the first half for the Titans. Mariani's long kickoff return came in the second quarter when he broke one for 32 yards, while he also had a couple of punt returns negated by holding penalties.
Friday night was a far cry from Mariani's first preseason game, where wind and rain hampered kicking and kick returns in Nashville. But under perfect conditions inside the New Orleans Superdome, Mariani took advantage, and looked much like the kick returner Titans' fans have grown accustomed to seeing in his five years in Nashville. Mariani is competing with Leon Washington and Dexter McCluster for kick return jobs, though the Titans have yet to use either at kick or punt return during a preseason game. Washington handles most of the kickoff duties a year ago, while McCluster, a hybrid running back who had a ton of success in Kansas City, was signed in the offseason.
"Yeah, I had one (return) where I thought I was going to break it, and that shows we are getting close to being where we need to be," Mariani said following the game in New Orleans. "All of the guys here in the locker room are working hard to make this a good season and we have to keep working hard to make that happen."
While Mariani is hitting his stride in the return game, he is also in a serious fight for a job at wide receiver as well. On Saturday night, he played some of the third quarter, and most of the fourth quarter at wide receiver, with the unit that was quarterbacked by LSU rookie Zach Mettenberger. Mariani had three balls thrown his way, grabbing an eight-yarder in the process. He now has three total catches in the preseason.
And though he is in a heated competition for a job he's literally had for the last four years with the Titans, he is trying to, as always to focus on what he can control, and not worry about what he can't. Mariani said he will continue to work hard, and try to seize the chances that come his way, adding that last Saturday night in New Orleans, was one of those nights where the chances came his way, and he made the most out of them.
"For me, there's nothing more exciting than having the ball come my way," Mariani said. "Whether it's standing underneath a punt, or a kickoff or a pass, whatever it is, in a game or in a scrimmage, that's what it's about for me.
"So Saturday night was a good night," he continued. "For me personally, it felt good to get loose and break a couple, it felt really good to go out there and make some plays when my number was called, especially since things didn't really go my way against Green Bay. So it was a good night for us."
This is a big week for Mariani, the Titans and the NFL. Tennessee will play its third preseason game Saturday night when they travel to the Atlanta Falcons. The third preseason game is usually the closest to simulating a regular season game, where starters and those likely to make the 53-man roster will get the majority of time in the game. The first round of roster cuts for Tennessee will be made Sunday. So again, Mariani will stick to what has worked for him, which is to focus on what he does best and make the plays when he gets his chances.
"I've been through it before, and if you let it get to you, it's trouble," Mariani said of roster cuts. "So I just focus on what I can control and that's working hard on the practice field and on game day. I have to go out make more plays and continue to prove myself. That's all I can control. And I think things will fall into place after that."