Kearse rushes to acceptance

Titans rookie end wins over Vermeil

January 28, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- On Monday, Dick Vermeil threw cold water on the first suggestion that Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse was the second coming of Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor.

"I don't want to offend anybody," the St. Louis Rams coach said, "but to me there was only one Lawrence Taylor, and you better play a few years before you get put into that category."

By yesterday, in his fourth day of Super Bowl interviews, Vermeil was happy to play the media game.

"Kearse? He's a curse, no question," Vermeil said in perhaps his best ad-lib of the season. "He's a better player today than he was the first time we played against him.

"He's a gifted player. He is a potential superstar, which he already is as a rookie."

Consider Kearse one of the keys -- and subplots -- to Super Bowl XXXIV on Sunday. If he shows up at the Georgia Dome looking like Taylor, the Titans' chances go up significantly.

If he looks like he did in the AFC championship game against Jacksonville's Leon Searcy -- when he made just two tackles and one fumble recovery -- the Titans may be in for a long evening.

Kearse, coming off a monster season when he collected a rookie-record 14 1/2 sacks and led the NFL with 10 forced fumbles, is hardly oblivious to the Taylor comparisons.

"I've followed Lawrence Taylor and I've seen what he did, and I guess there are some similarities," he said. "The speed, the quickness, the power. I feel like I can take my game to that level."

Kearse was playing in the LT stratosphere last Oct. 31, when he had a sack, a forced fumble and five tackles in a 24-21 victory over the Rams in Nashville. More indicative of his performance was this line on Rams right tackle Fred Miller: six false-start penalties and two holding penalties (one of which was declined).

Miller can't go anywhere in Atlanta without Kearse's haunting shadow.

"He definitely surprised me with his speed," Miller said. "It's very rare that you see a guy that has the type of speed he has. You don't see a guy with Kearse's size that has that type of speed and quickness. He's a gifted athlete."

At 6 feet 4 and 265 pounds, Kearse has a unique combination of speed, quickness and raw power. But that combination -- and the fact he played outside linebacker at the University of Florida -- contributed to him dropping to the 16th pick in the 1999 draft. At his size and speed, there was uncertainty whether he would be a defensive end or a linebacker in the NFL.

The Minnesota Vikings, desperate for a pass rusher, chose a quarterback (Daunte Culpepper) they didn't need with the 11th pick.

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose defensive tackle Anthony McFarland with the 15th pick, it allowed Kearse to slip to the Titans, who needed a pass rusher badly.

"I got gray hairs when I dropped out of the top 10," Kearse said. "I had no idea what was going on."

With Kearse in the lineup, Tennessee's limp pass rush jumped from 30 sacks in 1998 to 54 this season.

"When people are double- and triple-teaming him, that frees up some of the other guys on the line," said Titans offensive tackle Brad Hopkins. "He's not doing it by himself, obviously.

"Henry Ford and Kenny Holmes and Josh Evans and Jason Fisk are all applying pressure to the quarterback and making plays. When you have to contend with a guy like Jevon who can get off the ball quick and you need more than one guy to block him, it certainly frees up guys on the other end, and in the middle."

Kearse has gotten increasing attention from opposing offenses. In a 19-16 playoff loss to Tennessee, the Indianapolis Colts used a tackle, tight end and running back on Kearse nearly every pass play. This was one week after he had four tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, a pass breakup and a safety in a 22-16 wild-card win over the Buffalo Bills.

The Rams likely will move tight end Ernie Conwell to Miller's side to keep Kearse off quarterback Kurt Warner. Give Vermeil the final word on Kearse.

"Whoever plays on Jevon Kearse has a problem," he said. "If Freddie Miller doesn't pass-set, move his feet properly and get his body in proper position, jam properly, he will have a problem.

"But if we do things intelligently, and he [Miller] does things fundamentally right, it won't be the factor it was in the last game."

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