With Mawae out, Harris' development speeds up

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Kevin Mawae expects to be fully recovered from the elbow injury that cut his season short last year and the two subsequent surgeries in time for the Titans' opener at Pittsburgh on Sept. 10.

But while he's on the PUP list, the center position is well taken care of by third-year man Leroy Harris. And if Mawae isn't ready for the Steelers or against Houston or at the Jets, the Titans will have complete confidence in Harris, who started the regular-season finale and the playoff game against Baltimore last year.

While Mawae does effective work mostly because of his experience and crafty play, Harris is a much different player -- one that some Mawae critics hold out hope can still crack the lineup.

Harris is listed at 6-foot-3, 302 pounds; Mawae at 6-4, 289. Look at them and it's not hard to think the numbers are more different than that. Harris is very thick and strong.

"Leroy can move the pile, that's not Kevin's game. Obviously Kevin's game is quickness, getting skinny, getting to the second level, his expertise," offensive line coach Mike Munchak said. "Harris is more physical, can push the pile, matches up well, has great leverage on people because of his height. He's going to be an awfully good player."

It's interesting that Munchak points to Harris's height as something that makes him different than Mawae, when Mawae is listed as an inch taller. Harris' strength surely helps him be taller when he needs to be.

Mawae is in a contract year and wants to stay with the team beyond this season. But Harris is regarded as his successor, or at least as part of an interior line scenario where left guard Eugene Amano would move to center and Harris to guard.

Munchak compares Harris to Jets interior lineman Damien Woody, formerly of New England and Detroit, and ranks him as "5-A" on the line, an easy fill-in for any of the three interior spots.

"He's a lot stronger than I am," Mawae said. "He's got great feet, great hands and things like that. Strength-wise I'm not going to fool myself and say I am as strong as he is. I'm just not. The thing I have on him is the experience, the wisdom and the intuition that comes from playing for so long."

Mawae is unlikely to be unseated. Established starters don't lose jobs because of an injury. His presence and leadership are a big piece of the successful line. Harris said he's learned a lot about getting people off of him by watching Mawae, lessons he hopes he'll eventually be using as a starter.

"I lock up a lot more guys because I am stronger, but you're not going to be able outmuscle everybody," Harris said. "So the one thing is knocking guys' hands off. That's something I really got a chance to learn last year. Sometimes he beats your hands inside, but just having your hands quick enough where you can knock them off and still replace before you lose the guy is important. That's one thing he does really well, is swatting hands down."

So the Titans rank as four-deep on the interior.

Now Munchak needs to find a third tackle out of Mike Otto, Troy Kropog and Cory Lekkerkerker, or the Titans could be in the market for a veteran backup. Otto started Saturday against Tampa Bay at right tackle for the injured David Stewart and got a good review.