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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The tall young man who inherited Steve McNairâ€™s old locker, job and status as the face of the Tennessee Titansâ€™ franchise is undergoing a rough initiation into the fraternity of NFL quarterbacks.
Like virtually every other rookie passer, even one gifted enough to propel the Texas Longhorns to a national championship, Vince Young is struggling as he learns on the job.
Heading into Sundayâ€™s game against his mentor, McNair, and the Baltimore Ravens (6-2), Young is trying to recapture his electrifying college form and revitalize the AFC Southâ€™s last-place team. While there have been flashes of athleticism and instincts since Tennessee (2-6) drafted him third overall in April, Young’s development has been affected by being thrust into the starting lineup instead of being brought along slowly like McNair who wasnâ€™t anointed the starter until his third year.
Tennessee leap-frogged Young over Kerry Collins by his fourth game, and the rookie is coming off a three-interception debacle against the Jacksonville Jaguars. For the season, he has a 53.3 passer rating on 46 percent accuracy, 762 passing yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions.
â€œI donâ€™t feel like itâ€™s difficult at all,â€ said Young, initially slated to learn behind Billy Volek who was traded to San Diego. â€œI feel like itâ€™s all up to the player who comes into the NFL, how much hard work you put in to better yourself.
â€œThe coaches do a lot of good things in getting you prepared. Itâ€™s up to you to go out and execute the plays and know whatâ€™s going on.â€
Ever since that initial weekend, McNair has keep in close contact with Young. They bonded over similar family backgrounds as both were raised in single-parent households with no father figure, according to McNair.
â€œHe wanted a guy to help him along the way to reach his goal, and when I got involved in his life, I tried to guide him in the right direction,â€ McNair said. â€œSo, hopefully I did a good job. Heâ€™s a man now, so heâ€™s got to take whatever different people taught him along the way, his mom, his family, and just continue to be Vince. A younger Steve, maybe. I do see a lot of similarities, not only on the field but also off the field."
Although McNair went through a messy divorce from the Titans, including a contract dispute that paved the way for Youngâ€™s arrival, that exit hasnâ€™t changed the relationship between the veteran quarterback and the would-be prodigy.
â€œWeâ€™re very close,â€ McNair said. â€œMe and Vince havenâ€™t backed off the relationship because of the situation.â€
Young even calls McNair â€œPop.â€
â€œBasically, he just tells me to go out there and play my game,â€ Young said. â€œWeâ€™re close friends. Whatever you can take from that, weâ€™re all that and above."
Although they speak on a weekly basis and Young peppers McNair for pointers on how to attack defenses, naturally there wonâ€™t be any helpful hints this week. Itâ€™s far too competitive for that.
â€œOf course, Iâ€™m not going to give pointers on this week,â€ McNair said with a smile.
Now, Young is trying to establish his own foundation of success in Nashville, Tenn., outside of McNair’s considerable shadow as a former NFL Co-MVP who led the Titans to a Super Bowl berth during the 1999 season.
"I know about the things he did here, I know he did a whole lot," Young said. "He pretty much was the face of the Tennessee Titans. Basically, I’ve got to go out and play my game and try to build on all the different things he tried to do for my own history here."
Young, whom the Ravens brought in for a pre-draft visit at their training complex, remains a dangerous figure for defenses despite his lack of ideal experience and his fairly raw mechanics.
At 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, Young represents a blend of athletic skill, arm strength and rare mobility and improvisational ability. Heâ€™s also the Titansâ€™ third-leading rusher with 137 yards and two touchdowns.
If anything, Young hasnâ€™t lost any of his trademark confidence and swagger.
â€œI feel like I keep defenses on the edge of their seats,â€ Young said. â€œThey donâ€™t know if Iâ€™m going to run or pass. Iâ€™ve got to continue working that arm, continuing in my skills.â€
That factor of unpredictability is a major reason why the Ravens arenâ€™t taking Young lightly despite his modest statistics and his teamâ€™s losing record.
They have been preparing for the Titansâ€™ multi-dimensional shotgun offense that mirrors some of the Longhornsâ€™ playbook where Young either hands off to a back or pulls the football out for a pass.
The Ravens’ defense has thrived against young quarterbacks this season, defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Chris Simms, the Oakland Raiders’ Andrew Walter, the Cleveland Browns’ Charlie Frye and the San Diego Chargers’ Philip Rivers.
â€œYou lick your chops, but youâ€™ve got to really pay attention because some of these rookies can be special,â€ linebacker Bart Scott said. â€œYou donâ€™t want to be the beginning of a rookie being great on you. I donâ€™t want to be on somebodyâ€™s highlight tape.
â€œI remember back in the day, Donovan McNabb killing [Ravens secondary coach] Mark Carrier with a crossover. Sorry, Mark. Heâ€™s still a great football player with a lot of natural ability, talent and speed.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland