Titans' Mike Vrabel relies on Derrick Henry as tone-setter for practice

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel tends to be all over the place at practice -- but that's a good thing.

Vrabel spreads his energy and intensity to the various position groups. His routine ranges from stopping by the offensive line to ensure proper blocking techniques to going over to the wide receivers to sharpen their routes, and everything else in between.

Vrabel's love affair with football fuels the intensity. It's no coincidence many of the Titans' players share his passion.

"We want guys that love football," Vrabel said. "We want guys that are passionate about coming to work and enjoy coming to work every day and enjoy this process. I tell them, ‘We could all go get real jobs and we'd really be miserable,’ but we get to do something that we love, we get to play a game we love, coach a game that we love and we have a lot of guys like that."

Vrabel often works with running backs coach Tony Dews to help Derrick Henry fine-tune the 2019 rushing champ's stiff arm. The trio jogs from sideline to sideline with one coach jabbing a helmet that's attached to a broomstick in different directions for Henry to aim his stiff arm at while the other tries to punch the ball out.

Henry has become somewhat of a catalyst for the effort and intensity Vrabel wants the team to practice with. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound back makes sure he races a few extra yards toward the end zone after plays are blown dead in practice. For Henry, it's preparation for being the Titans' finisher on game day. The idea is to also rub off on the rest of the players on the field.

"Everybody understands his work ethic, the way he finishes runs," Vrabel said. "Again, we're not tackling anybody. It's just that he's working on conditioning while we play. Everybody's working on their own football conditioning, allow us to finish longer. Our offensive lineman run downfield looking for extra blocks. Our defensive players are going full tilt without a tackle and trying to hammer the ball out. We're trying to learn how to practice like pros."

Added Henry, "If you set the tone of practice, that sets the standards of what practice should be like from start to finish. That's what I try to do, and that's what coach Vrabel preaches."

Practices have become even more important this year since the coronavirus pandemic caused the elimination of offseason activities, minicamp and preseason games. Teams have 14 total padded practices during training camp. The Titans open the season against the Broncos in Denver on Monday Night Football.

While teams don't frequently have periods when they tackle to the ground, this season could be different. There will likely be more scrimmages during camp in which players can pick teams and get into more intense, competitive situations.

Team periods with 11-on-11 are an ideal opportunity to create competitiveness on the field. There isn't any cut blocking by the offensive line, even in situations in which they would normally be called upon to do so, but rest assured there is some banging going on in the trenches.

"You’ve got to be amped up as a running back because those guys are ready ..." Henry said. "So, you just got to have that mindset to bring that intensity and be ready to run hard and finish runs."

Vrabel said the Titans might need to get some of the younger players, such as rookie running back Darrynton Evans, in periods in which they are tackled to the ground. Without any preseason games, it's a way to see how they'll respond to the physicality on game day.

"Probably, at some point in time through training camp, Darrynton needs to get tackled, because on Sept. 15, he's going to get hit and tackled really hard. As hard and as legally as the Broncos and the rest of the teams that we play do."

There's a sense of urgency at the Titans' practices because they know time is short. The coaches want players to get as many reps as possible on the field after being able to only go over details in the classroom during the offseason.

Every drill is executed with effort. That's what stands out the most to rookie Kristian Fulton.

"The biggest jump is everything is at a high intensity," Fulton said. "I mean, we did everything at a high intensity at LSU, but it's even higher. They're expecting you to jump around, move around in every drill."

Vrabel is incorporating special teams into semi-live periods -- they aren't tackling the kick or punt returners, but other parts of the return group are going at it. Vrabel and his staff want players to get used to having to block someone running full speed down the field in the return game and get used to covering kickoffs or punts.

Inside linebacker Nick Dzubnar was brought in primarily to fill a special-teams role for the Titans. The sixth-year veteran has seen his share of training camps, but his first with the Titans is different.

"The tempo is very fast, but there's a lot of excitement," Dzunbar said. "Auk [Craig Aukerman] brings a lot of really good energy. It’s go, go, go, which obviously fuels everyone else, and that's the way we should play. So, energy is really high, but it's great. Everyone's excited to be out here playing football because we've been off for so long."