NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Marc Mariani can tick off all the reasons why he was a long shot to play in the NFL.
Native of tiny Havre, Mont. A walk-on for two years at Montana before earning a college scholarship. Seventh-round draft pick.
Then there’s that “whole coach Fisher thing” as he puts it.
Critics thought Titans coach Jeff Fisher simply did his son a favor by drafting Brandon Fisher’s Montana teammate back in April. Fisher’s son even wound up calling Mariani (mare-ee-ANN-ee) to break the news Tennessee had drafted him.
All the talk can stop now.
With every game, Mariani proves he deserves to be here. He’s revived Tennessee’s return game, paying off in a big way last Sunday when stared into the late afternoon sun before grabbing a kickoff and taking it back 73 yards to set up the winning touchdown at Dallas.
He loves proving people wrong.
“I enjoy adversity,” Mariani said Wednesday. “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. It’s not something I feel I need to do, but it’s something that motivates me every day. Coach Fisher … well my play will speak for itself. Hopefully, it continues to do that.”
All the talk about why the Titans drafted Mariani didn’t bother Fisher then, and certainly doesn’t now. The Titans coach had seen Mariani play for Montana when he watched Grizzlies games on the Internet, satellite TV or on rare occasions, in person.
Drafting Mariani was strictly a personnel move for a team needing to improve its special teams after ranking 25th on punt returns and 29th on kickoffs in 2009. Fisher said they were a little nervous in the sixth round that Mariani wouldn’t be available. The Titans had Mariani rated higher than where they took him at No. 222 overall.
“I think people maybe just have to fill in lines or what have you and went there for ridiculous reasons. I was not concerned at all,” Fisher said. “I’m not surprised, we as a staff, are not surprised at what Marc has been able to do. I personally watched Marc do it for three years and felt like his production at that level would transfer to this level.”
And Fisher usually knows. He played in the NFL as a defensive back and punt returner.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Mariani has a knack for producing. The guy who couldn’t get a scholarship after winning a state title as a senior at Harve High walked on for two years at Montana. He earned a scholarship as a junior and wound up returning three punts and a kickoff for touchdowns.
He left Montana as the career leader in all-purpose yards and had three of the Grizzlies’ longest scoring plays with a 98-yard kickoff return, a 94-yard punt return and an 84-yard reception.
All Mariani has done in the NFL is find his way up the field.
He won the return job in preseason and scored his first NFL touchdown Oct. 3 returning a kick untouched 98 yards in a 26-20 loss to Denver. The kid who ran 4.48 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his pro day has shown the ability to run by defenders, along with good decision-making. He credits his blockers for his success.
“The guys are doing an unbelievable job,” Mariani said. “It makes my job easier and I feel more comfortable when they have confidence in me. I know it’s a matter of time. You’ve got to earn the respect of your teammates. Each week, I’ve been trying to do that. … I think the results are showing.”
The numbers back him up. The Titans (3-2), who play at Jacksonville (3-2) on Monday night, now rank 10th in the NFL with a 10.4-yard average on punt returns and seventh on kickoff returns with a 28.3-yard average.
Mariani’s most challenging return came last Sunday. The sun was shining through the windows and right into his eyes after a celebration penalty forced Dallas to kick off from the 15. He shielded his eyes with a hand, caught the ball and raced up the field until kicker David Buehler yanked him down. Chris Johnson scored three plays later in the 34-27 win.
Fisher doesn’t think anyone will ever know how tough that catch was because the conditions probably won’t be duplicated again. He said Mariani told him he moved to his left based on film study and picked up the ball right at the end.
“It’s not an easy thing to do. Returning and dealing with the sun is not an easy thing to do,” Fisher said. “That was sun in an indoor facility shining through a window and not just the sunlight outside.”
More than most, Mariani is aware that job security in the NFL hangs by a thread. He’s trying to enjoy every minute possible.
“At the same time if you get complacent or if you get satisfied with where you’re at, someone’s going to run right past you,” Mariani said. “I do try to take time to stop and smell the roses a little bit while I’m continuing to try to get better and try to make this last and help this team win.”
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