NASHVILLE – It seemed for the longest time that it might take some kind of natural disaster or act of God for Dillon Radunz to see significant playing time this season.
The Tennessee Titans’ second-round pick in this year’s draft, Radunz was selected with the idea he would compete for the team’s starting right tackle position straight out of the gate. That never really materialized, however, as the transition from North Dakota State – an FCS power – proved much more daunting than the Titans or Radunz ever would have imagined.
It was one thing not to crack the starting lineup, quite another to get buried on the offensive line depth chart, as was the case with Radunz. His welcome-to-the-NFL moment came in Week 1, when he was inactive against Arizona. David Quessenberry, who’d played almost exclusively left tackle in 2020, won the starting right tackle job. But the parade of tackles that started games ahead of Radunz this season also included Ty Sambrailo, Kendall Lamm and – in perhaps the toughest blow -- Bobby Hart, who’d been signed just days earlier as a free agent.
All season, coaches have praised the work ethic and the character of Radunz, who headed out to the practice field early each day, eager for the opportunity to do extra work with assistant offensive line coach Mike Sullivan. There was never a hint that Radunz’s struggles were anything like right tackle Isaiah Wilson’s, the Titans’ 2019 first-round pick, who self-destructed during his rookie season.
Still, why couldn’t Radunz get on the field?
Heading into Week 16, he had been scratched from the lineup five times, most recently in Week 13 against Jacksonville. In the nine games Radunz played, he logged a grand total of 53 offensive snaps.
“Obviously, as far as goals for myself, you feel disappointed when you don’t play as much as you want,” Radunz said. “We’re all competitors on this team. We’re all going to want to play more. So obviously there’s going to be that disappointment there. But you’ve got to understand that. You’ve got to be teachable.”
It took just a few days in this shortened game week for everything to change. A few unfortunate events pushed the 6-foot-6, 301-pound Becker, Minn. native straight into prime time.
Starting left tackle Taylor Lewan? He didn’t practice all week due to a back injury. Lamm, the back-up? He tested positive for COVID-19. Quessenberry? The Titans chose to keep him at right tackle, where he’d been playing all season.
So, in a team meeting at about 10 a.m. on Thursday, Radunz got the word: He would be the Titans’ starting left tackle that night. Protecting the blind side. In a nationally televised game. Against a hard-charging San Francisco defense that featured Nick Bosa, who entered the contest with 15 sacks, just 2.5 behind NFL leader T.J. Watt.
Welcome to the spotlight, Dillon Radunz.
“When we got the news and told him, it was a quick conversation,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “He had the big smile on his face, and he was excited, and it was cool.”
Which is not to say the butterflies didn’t eventually flutter furiously in Radunz’s stomach. To stay as calm as possible, he readied his mind, reminding himself it was time to play the kind of football the team drafted him to play – to play Titans football.
“I had a lot of mental preparation for this game, so I was pretty calm,” Radunz said. “But anybody who goes out there, just imagine – Thursday night game, prime time, your first start, you’re starting at left tackle. So, there’s going to be nerves there.”
Radunz’s teammates lent their support in the hours leading up to the contest. Lewan texted him, offering helpful tips and pointers as Radunz returned to left tackle, a position he hadn’t played in a game since October of 2020 at North Dakota State. Tannehill reminded Radunz and left guard Aaron Brewer – filling in for Rodger Saffold – things weren’t going to be perfect on every play. But the plan was, no matter what, to bounce back, reset and be ready again.
Who knows how much that kind of advice might have helped Radunz in the second quarter Thursday, when he was penalized for a chop block that set the Titans back 12 yards?
“I heard nothing but just, ‘Hey, we trust you, we’ve got confidence in you [from teammates],’” Radunz said. “I was well taken care of by my teammates. It’s a great team. I’m very thankful for them, and yeah, I definitely felt well-prepared with the way the team brought me in and just bestowed confidence upon me.”
Radunz didn’t deliver a Picasso in his first NFL start. In addition to the chop-block penalty, he surrendered a sack, as well as four of the eight pressures the Titans allowed on Tannehill, per Pro Football Focus. But on a night when the Titans’ offense didn’t score a point in the first half, and totaled 278 yards overall, there were plenty of imperfect performances to go around.
Here’s the thing, though: Radunz was not the story of the game. And that’s a good thing. He wasn’t steam-rolled by 49ers defenders like Bosa, who – by the way – didn’t post any of the 49ers’ four sacks. He did not become an object of pity on national television, overwhelmed by his responsibility or the first start.
Instead, Radunz held his own, a solid part of the Titans’ come-from-behind 20-17 win over the 49ers.
Faint praise, some might say, for a second-round pick nearing the end of his first season. But it will almost certainly serve as a confidence builder and steppingstone, not to mention a validation of all his efforts.
“Dillon, a guy who didn’t even know he was going to be active probably, and all of a sudden he is starting the game and playing every play for us,” Tannehill said. “It felt like he did a great job.”
Said Radunz: “I feel like I did decent. There’s obviously stuff to continue to improve on. I didn’t feel like I did terrible. The most important part is the team got a win. And I was able to fill that role.”
Moments after the victory, Radunz looked as smooth and as comfortable as – for the most part – he’d looked on the field, a flat-brimmed hat framing his face as he answered a throng of media questions for the first time this season.
Later, on social media, he sent his own message thanking Nashville and the Titans for making his career start so special.
“I feel like I’ve developed a lot,” Radunz said. “The game’s a little faster (than at North Dakota State). But yeah, I feel like I’ve grown a lot.”
A long wait ended, at last.