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Mariani sparkles in final audtion

 

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If the key for a seventh-round draft pick from the Football Championship Subdivision to making an NFL 53-man roster is performing at a high level time and time again in the preseason, then former Havre High three-sport star Marc Mariani is certainly worthy of making the Tennessee Titans' opening-day roster.

Over the course of the last month, whether it be practice, scrimmages or in preseason games, Mariani has come up clutch every time a ball has been thrown his way, on almost every kick return and in the all-important special teams area. He's done so well in fact, in Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher's post-game press conference following the Titans' 27-24 win over the New Orleans Saints at LP Field Thursday night, when asked if he was surprised by Mariani's play, Fisher promptly responded with a short answer.

"No, he's a football player and that's why we drafted him," Fisher remarked.

Perhaps Fisher isn't surprised because he's always been considered a great evaluator of talent, or he's not surprised because he's seen Mariani grow from a University of Montana walk-on into an NFL caliber player, one who will make final cut day either a very easy decision by keeping him or a very difficult one if they decide let Mariani go.

Either way, Mariani has answered the call this summer, and for his part, he's proven he's fully equipped not only to play on Sunday's, but contribute as a rookie.

In his final audition, Thursday night's preseason finale between the Saints and Titans, Mariani got the nod as the starting kickoff and punt returner, and he made a dazzling 38-yard punt return in the second quarter. The play was called back due to a late personal foul on the Titans, but it's on tape for the coaches to evaluate, which, for anyone on the bubble, is what Thursday night was all about.

Mariani also played well at receiver, going up against the Saints' No. 1 and No. 2 defense for much of the night. In the fourth quarter, Mariani got to show the coaching staff one last time just how fast he can be and how precise his routes are when he left a Saints' cornerback in his wake and hauled in a 46-yard pass from third-string quarterback Chris Simms. The catch set the Titans up on the New Orleans' 7-yard-line and eventually led to a touchdown which put Tennessee ahead for good.

Thursday night was Mariani's fourth straight stellar preseason performance, and now all that's left for him to do is wait to find out his fate for the regular season. The Titans will have their roster trimmed to 53 by 3 p.m. M.S.T. on Saturday.

And while he waits, he can be confident in the fact he's done exactly what he came to Nashville to do, give it his best shot and perform to the best of his ability.

"More than anything, I'm really pleased with what I've done and how I've performed," Mariani said after Thursday night's game. "The goal I set for myself when I got here last month was to get better every day, and I've done that. I've learned a lot and I've become a better football player, so I am pleased with how this last month has gone."

A better football player indeed.

In four preseason games Mariani led the Titans in yards per catch (19.6 ypc), as well as in kickoff and punt return average. Like on Thursday night, Mariani had at least one key catch on a scoring drive in all four preseason outings. He also did everything asked of him covering kicks and punts, racking up seven total tackles in the preseason. Mariani has also appeared to distance himself from third-round pick Damien Williams of USC in the battle for the return job, but in the end, that, along with a number of other factors, will be up to the coaches.

So for now, he'll wait to find out if he'll be in a Titans' uniform next Sunday when they host the Oakland Raiders on opening day in Nashville, or whether he'll be somewhere else on opening day, or possibly a practice squad player.

And while it's a nerve-racking time for the two-time FCS All-American from Montana, he knows he's done all he can in his first NFL training camp.

"Again, I'm really happy with what I've done and how much I've improved," Mariani said. "The part that I can control is done now. Now it's just a wait and see, so we'll see what happens in a couple of days."

The Last Audition

Mariani vs Saints

Receiving — 1 catch for 46 yards

Punts — 1 return for 13 yards

Kickoffs — 2 returns for 51 yards

The Final Cut

Preseason Totals

Receiving — 7 catches for 131 yards

Punts — 5 returns for a 9.2 average

Kickoffs — 10 returns for 267 yards, a 26.7 average with a long of 60 yards

Tackles — 4 solo, 7 total.

Options: While Mariani certainly has performed like a player the Titans want to keep on their active roster, several scenarios can happen to him this weekend. If he is not chosen to be on the Titans' 53-man roster, he goes on waivers where any NFL team can sign him, but only to an active roster. If he clears waivers he will almost certainly be offered a spot on the Tennessee practice squad for this season, with a chance to compete for a roster spot in 2011. But after clearing waivers, he's also able to negotiate with any other NFL franchise who would offer him a spot on its practice squad.

 
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