Center Gabe Ikard’s rookie season coincides with Ken Whisenhunt taking over as Tennessee’s head coach, which could assist the undrafted free agent’s chances of making the Titans’ roster.
Currently sidelined by a minor knee injury, Ikard isn’t expected to play Saturday night in the Titans exhibition game at Atlanta, but he hopes to play in the preseason finale Thursday against Minnesota.
Ikard is listed as the third-team center on the Titans’ depth chart but has played some second-team snaps when backup Chris Spencer was sidelined by an ankle injury.
“Football is football,” Ikard said. “My focus is to help our offense move the ball when I’m in there. One of the main things I’ve focused on is making sure I know what my assignment is every play. In my situation I can’t afford to have mental errors, even in practice.”
The Bishop McGuinness product was on the field for 3,410 snaps at OU. His senior year, he recorded 97 knockdowns in 942 plays, an extremely high 11 percent rate.
“Obviously my first goal is to do what I have to do to get on the football field,” Ikard said. “My main priority is to make the 53-man roster, and I’m working as hard as I can to try and reach that goal.”
Ikard made 50 starts at OU, the majority (32) at center after starting 18 games at left guard. But like every NFL rookie, he has experienced firsthand how every roster is stacked with college stars.
“It’s definitely different, even big-time college football to this level,” Ikard said. “Everyone is fast. Everyone is strong. Everyone is big. It’s essential that I know every assignment extremely well and execute at a high level. The guys on the other (side), those defensive guys are trying to earn jobs, too.”
He’s had to learn a new playbook with the Titans, but Ikard said playing in OU’s up-tempo offense was a benefit.
“What we ran at OU is a little different than the pro style we run here, but it wasn’t that tough to pick up on the playbook,” Ikard said. “There are some very similar concepts in the running game and the passing game. They call (plays) by different names and you have a few different reads but (there is) a lot of similarities.”
Ikard’s rookie season coincides with Whisenhunt’s Titans debut.
Whisenhunt, 52, compiled a 45-51 record in six years in Arizona. He led the Cardinals to their only Super Bowl appearance during the 2008 season. Last season, he was the San Diego Chargers’ offensive coordinator.
“When you hear him talking about going to the Super Bowl, it’s obvious this is a coach who has proven he can help take a team to the highest level,” Ikard said. “He’s a highly respected coach throughout the NFL. He’s a great leader for this organization.
“It’s a good change that opens up competition, which forces every player, even longtime veterans, to concentrate at a high level. I’m very excited to play for a coach who has that type of credentials.”
A Rimington Trophy finalist, an award given to the top offensive lineman in college football, Ikard was named first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association. He doesn’t take his NFL opportunity for granted.
“It was very exciting to play in a preseason game,” Ikard said. “Obviously it’s a very stressful time. Every day you’re thankful you haven’t been cut. That’s just part of being in an NFL camp, especially for guys on the bubble, undrafted guys like myself.
“It’s a very interesting process where you understand how the business side, how cutthroat it is. That’s something you learn to appreciate after you see other guys get cut. You never really know what might happen. You just try to do your job and hope that’s good enough.”
No matter how it turns out the next few weeks, Ikard said it’s rewarding to play football at the highest level.
“It’s exciting,” Ikard said. “Everyone that plays big-time college football, their goal is to make the NFL. But I’m not satisfied just to be in camp. My goal is to make this team. I’m grateful the Titans are giving me the opportunity, and I’m trying to make the most of it.”