Titans' Smith the unlikely starting QB vs. Texans

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Rusty Smith showed up for work bright and early Monday morning, and he hasn't left the Titans' facility much since.

That's because the sixth-round draft pick from Florida Atlantic is about to become the first rookie quarterback from Jacksonville to start in the NFL -- not Tim Tebow, who also went to the same big church as Smith.

Smith will start Sunday in Houston against the Texans (4-6) with Vince Young on injured reserve and needing surgery on his right thumb and veteran Kerry Collins recovering from a strained left calf.

Collins doesn't think anyone has to worry about the 6-foot-5, 226-pound Smith being prepared.

"He's a starting quarterback," Collins said. "There's pressure, but that's when you just got to focus on what you need to do. I think everybody will see that he's ready to play."

Only a week ago, Smith moved up from No. 3 to Young's backup because of Collins' injury and talked of trying to emulate Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy if he did have to hit the field. Now Smith will be the third different starter in three games for the Titans (5-5), who have lost three in a row and have had a starter finish a game only once in the past five.

Smith got into last Sunday's 19-16 overtime loss to the Washington Redskins after Young tore the flexor tendon in his right thumb. When Young had a heated exchange with Jeff Fisher in the locker room after tossing his pads into the stands, the coach announced that Smith would start the next game, even if Young had been healthy.

Fisher said Smith can handle pretty much anything.

"He played the pro-style offense, made all the throws. He's a very accurate passer, he has a strong arm. He's tall and he sees well, and he's very intelligent," Fisher said. "We had him up on our board, we had him quite high after our visit with him. We felt like he had a chance."

Smith is the top passer in the short history of Florida Atlantic, the program that Howard Schnellenberger first put on the field in 2001. Smith led the Owls to their first bowl berth and win and is their first player drafted, though he lasted until the 176th overall pick when an injury to his left, non-throwing shoulder limited him to seven games.

Smith still threw for 1,915 yards and 14 touchdowns with just five interceptions.

The Titans grabbed Smith with the first of their two sixth-round picks, loving his strong arm and footwork in the pocket. Smith beat out Chris Simms, signed in the spring, for the No. 3 spot. Simms now is back on the roster as Smith's backup until Collins heals.

"You tell him something once, and he gets it," Fisher said of Smith. "He has a real good understanding of the offense, of protections and where he needs to go with the football. I just felt like he had a huge upside."

Smith was 3-of-9 passing for 62 yards with one interception in his NFL debut, coming off the bench late in the third quarter of the 19-16 overtime loss. His first professional completion was a 52-yarder to Nate Washington, and Smith immediately looked for, and threw, to Randy Moss on three of his first four passes.

"He came in there, he didn't seem nervous or anything like that," Titans running back Chris Johnson said of Smith. "He came in fired up. So basically, I think he'll be ready to go with some practice."

Smith will have offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger calling plays Sunday. Heimerdinger learned Wednesday he has cancer, but his treatment doesn't start until Monday, so the coordinator returned to work Thursday. The rookie has spent some extra time getting to know receivers such as Moss, Washington and Justin Gage since he hadn't worked with them much.

The Texans, who have the NFL's worst-ranked passing defense (301 yards per game), sound as if they're preparing more to defend Johnson.

"That's still what they want to do which is run the ball with him," Texans defensive end Antonio Smith said. "He gets probably a good 60 to 70 percent of their possessions, whether it's passing it to him out of the backfield or running the ball. He is who we are going to have to stop, regardless of whoever is at the quarterback position."

Smith said veterans keep advising him just to have fun and trust his teammates. He said he won't try to do more than the offense calls for him to do when kickoff comes.

"I expect nerves to kick in a little bit as they should," he said. "I've heard somebody say if you're not nervous, you're not ready."

Notes: TE Craig Stevens (knee) returned to practice, but he was limited. ... Six Titans didn't practice, including DE Dave Ball (concussion), K Rob Bironas (right groin), WR Kenny Britt (right hamstring), DT Tony Brown (right knee), Collins (left calf) and DT Jason Jones (right knee).

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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