Cameron WolfeSarah Barshop 24d

Leaders from the start: Deshaun Watson, Marcus Mariota are 'guys you want to follow'

Sunday marks a new era in the Houston Texans-Tennessee Titans rivalry, one built around their two young, electrifying, dual-threat quarterbacks.

The big stage hasn't scared Tennessee's Marcus Mariota or Houston's Deshaun Watson. It doesn't appear it will. They've already shown examples of the dynamic leadership that often takes quarterbacks half of a career to establish.

Titans linebacker Kevin Dodd, who played two years with Watson in college, can rattle off the differences in their playing styles with ease, but he's stumped when contrasting their leadership qualities.

"They're kinda similar," Dodd said. "Two completely good guys you want to follow and work your tail off for. Teams rally around them."

So just how do Mariota, 23, and Watson, 22, fearlessly lead a locker room with guys 10 or 15 years their senior? Let their teammates explain:

Mariota 'the glue of this team'

One day during the Titans' 2015 offseason workouts, receiver Harry Douglas entered the weight room for a routine workout. There was the No. 2 pick, Marcus Mariota, the rookie franchise quarterback, on the squat rack doing reps at 400 pounds.

Douglas' eyes widened, but Mariota was just getting started. He then moved to hang cleans, throwing up nearly 300 pounds.

"You don't usually see that, so I knew he was different," Douglas said. "I saw why he had all those long runs in college and why he's so good."

Mariota's leadership isn't loud or showy. His teammates swear their young quarterback has earned more respect than any player on the team, even if he won't accept it himself. It's his actions, work ethic and play that speak for him.

"He's not a Cam Newton type or even an Aaron Rodgers type," Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "If you pay attention to his eyes and body language, you'll see what he wants for us."

Lewan is the mouth of the Titans' offense. His unfiltered trash talk rings through the locker room and on the field. But at his core, Lewan is a protector and an enforcer.

So when Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman nailed Mariota with a late hit near the sideline during the second quarter of the Titans' 33-27 win last Sunday, Lewan sprinted over and went helmet-to-helmet with Sherman, appearing on the verge of ripping his helmet off. The encounter was broken up before it went any further, but the message was sent.

"I don't want to block for anybody else other than that guy. I love that guy," Lewan said. "He's definitely the glue of this team. He's loved by every player on this team. We want to take care of him."

Several Titans simply described Mariota as a "100 percent natural born leader." Tight end Delanie Walker figures it has something to do with Mariota's Hawaiian upbringing, in that nothing seems to bother him and he can remain calm while the rest of the team panics.

That could be one reason the Titans' two-minute offense is so good. That's an earned role for Mariota, who calls most of those plays. But as he continues to grow as a quarterback and gain more responsibility for the offense, his leadership remains unwavering.

"He's been the same way since the beginning. That's the best part," Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. "He's never been anybody other than who he is, that's what a leader is."

Titans running back DeMarco Murray compared Mariota's leadership to that of Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, whom he said didn't need to speak much but had the locker room silent and attentive when he did talk. Murray says former Dallas quarterback Tony Romo was similar, with a little more open communication from an individual standpoint. Both of those styles served Murray and the Cowboys well, and he believes it's the same with Mariota.

"People watch the way he handles himself," Murray said. "I don't respect a player's vocal ability. I respect work ethic and, of course, how they play. And that's why I respect Marcus."

Watson's leadership 'goes a long way'

When Texans rookie running back D'Onta Foreman stood in the huddle with Watson for the first time, he loved what he was hearing.

"If he knows I'm going to get the ball, he might say, 'Come on, we need some yardage,' something just encouraging for me to get going or whoever to get going," Foreman said. "I definitely respect that.

"He's very supportive. He encourages everybody as soon as he gets in the huddle before we start a series."

From the moment Watson took the field for his first NFL game, he exuded that confidence and leadership ability in the huddle. Having reached two straight national championship games with Clemson and winning the 2016 crown, he already had the respect of many in the Texans' locker room as well.

"He's confident. He's always smiling. He doesn't look nervous," wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins said. "Even from his first snap out there, he looked confident, like he belonged out there, like he'd been there before. Just the way he was talking to everybody, joking and commanding things from us as wideouts and offensive line."

Perhaps the most effective part of Watson's leadership is his ability to do so without "directing people," according to Texans quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan.

"I think leadership comes in different ways, and with him it's sometimes -- it's just being at ease with people and the way he leads," Ryan said. "You might not even realize that, if he's talking to you, that he is leading you and giving you direction because of the way he does it.

"He's not directing people. He's telling them, ‘Hey, this is what I'm seeing and if you can do this, this is what I think is going to make this work.' You know what I mean? It's his demeanor, it's the way he comes across. You don't feel like he's telling you what to do. You feel like he's talking football with you and helping you.

"People respond to it, and that's probably been one of the things that I've been most impressed with, is the response he gets from players, young guys and veterans in the locker room and on the field when he talks to them about what he's thinking, what he's seeing and what they can do to make everybody's job a little better."

Left tackle Chris Clark pointed to Watson's ability to lead by example, but said when Watson needs to take command of the offense or locker room, he will.

"That's what you all see, the quiet leadership," Clark said. "We see a lot more than that. He's a guy who's on it, and who cares. And it's important. He's doing a really good job.

"He's vocal, he's working, he's pressing. He's doing everything he needs to get done as a quarterback."

After a tough 36-33 loss to New England on Sunday, Hopkins said the way Watson reacted stood out to him. The rookie's demeanor helped keep the rest of the team in the right mindset for its important Week 4 game against the Titans.

"He's always happy," Hopkins said. "Even after the loss, he was confident about coming out this week and getting a win versus Tennessee. Just keeping everybody's hopes up. Little stuff like that, it goes a long way."

It's easy to cite the intangibles when talking about Watson's leadership skills, but coach Bill O'Brien said that to lead a football team, the first thing is what you can do on the field.

"[With] leadership in football, you have to be a good player," O'Brien said. "You don't really have to say anything if you're that good of a player. I think his leadership skills are really good, especially for a young player. He takes command in the huddle, but I think it's going to continue to grow, obviously, as he keeps playing."

Added backup quarterback Tom Savage: "You've got to make plays to become a leader, and he's done that. The team trusts him, the team's got his back."

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