As Titans RB Chris Johnson ran away with the NFL rushing title last season, rookie Javon Ringer, third on the depth chart, watched and learned.
And rested, which probably wasn't the worst thing for him.
"It was kind of a redshirt year, I guess you could say," Ringer, now the Titans' top backup tailback after LenDale White was dealt in April, said last week as the Titans conducted their latest round of organized team activities.
It was a redshirt year he may have needed.
The 23-year-old Ringer, who's in line for more work this season as the Titans seek to reduce Johnson's workload after a 358-carry, 50-catch effort in 2009, knows what it's like to carry an offense play after play, game after game. Ringer needs only to think back two years ago to his senior season at Michigan State, when he was the focal point of the Spartans' attack.
In 2008, the 5-foot-9, 205-pound Ringer carried an incredible 390 times in 13 games, which works out to a neat 30 carries per game. He also caught 28 passes. In seven games, Ringer racked up 32 carries or more, and he averaged 40 carries in a very busy September.
"You're bringing back some memories for me, now," Ringer said, reminiscing.
Ringer, who said his competitiveness helped him handle such a heavy workload, relished the responsibility, and the Spartans would win nine games and earn a berth in the Capital One Bowl. Along the way, though, he paid the price. He suffered a slight tear in the lateral meniscus in his left knee during a 37-carry effort against Michigan on Oct. 25 and played the final three regular-season contests and bowl game with the injury. By the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine, Ringer estimates he was only "75 percent" healthy, and he was only feeling slightly better by Michigan State's pro day. Somewhat surprisingly, he went undrafted until Round Five, when Tennessee selected him No. 173 overall.
Though Ringer realized he figured to get little work with the Titans as a rookie, he said he felt "blessed" all the same, for he could learn his craft as a rookie. Another benefit: The effects of the pounding he took as a senior started to fade away.
"I felt my body feel really good by midseason," he said.
Ringer played in just seven games as a rookie, carrying eight times for 48 yards. He missed time in November with a back injury suffered in practice and carried just once after the club's bye week, when Johnson's workload was heaviest. Johnson would finish with 2,006 rushing yards, most in club history and just 100 short of topping Eric Dickerson's single-season mark.
But with White now with the Seahawks, and with keeping Johnson fresh a stated goal of head coach Jeff Fisher, Ringer will be a bigger part of the offense in 2010. And for now, he is the Titans' top option in the backfield as Johnson, who wants a new contract, works out on his own.
Fisher, speaking to Nashville reporters Thursday, said he wasn't "concerned" about Johnson's absence.
"These things work themselves out," he said. "I'm sure that he is working. I'm sure he is not planning on sitting out the season. I'm sure he is planning on coming in here very soon."
For Ringer, Johnson's absence is an opportunity to get the work he didn't get in 2009. It is also his chance to show his teammates what he's learned in between his first and second seasons. Even in offseason workouts, Ringer has "got to show he can produce," said Titans RB coach Kennedy Pola.
Pola, who joined the Titans in January after five seasons with the Jaguars, liked Ringer enough coming out of Michigan State that he still has his collegiate stats stored on his personal computer. And though Pola is still getting familiar with Ringer, he likes what he has seen to date, citing Ringer's strength and work ethic as assets.
"From what I see here, how he works out with the offseason conditioning (program), he's one of those kids who you tell him what to do, and he's going to carry the flag," Pola said.
Titans backup RB Alvin Pearman, who joined Tennessee last October, has seen Ringer make strides from his rookie season.
"The first year is a lot of the unknown, learning the position," he said. "This year, Javon seems more confident."
Simply knowing his assignment was challenging enough for Ringer as a rookie, but his grasp of Mike Heimerdinger's scheme is better than it was.
"I know the offense a lot better," Ringer said, "and don't have to think as much."
Now, his focus is to better understand how he fits into the offense. Knowing how the entire attack functions is vital, Pola said, because of pre-snap adjustments from defenses. "You have to, in one shot, see it," he said.
Time and again, Johnson has proven he can do just that. He's also shown impressive versatility as a runner, showing the patience to set up blocks and the power needed to thrive when pure speed isn't enough to successfully finish a run.
Ringer has the makings of a well-rounded skill set, too. His balance impresses Pearman, who noted how good balance allows a back to "power through cuts." Ringer is also strong and flexible enough in the lower body to be able to do a roundhouse kick over a seven-foot-high weight bag, something he did just a couple of weeks ago, in street clothes, in front of an impressed Pearman, who noted he executed the move with "ease."
Ringer understands that his role will likely be to spell Johnson on occasion, and he's working to ensure he's ready for whatever he's asked to do. He knows what it is like to get close to 400 carries in one season and but a handful the next, and he is taking nothing for granted.
"I'm preparing myself as if I have to prove myself all over again," Ringer said.