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Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota will be the guest speaker Thursday at the Times Free Press Best of Preps banquet.

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Wiedmer: Marcus Mariota a Best of Preps speaker to believe in

When it comes to the Tennessee Titans, almost everything about the NFL franchise will be new this season.

New coaching staff.

New offensive and defensive schemes.

New uniforms.

But at the most important position on the field, the Titans are expected to look the same as they have the past three seasons. Their quarterback will again be 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, who also is the featured speaker at the Times Free Press's Best of Preps banquet Thursday night at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

As former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga offensive lineman Corey Levin, now entering his second season with the Titans, observed late last week: "Marcus is a pretty reserved guy. What you see is what you get."

What you see is what you get. Consistent. Reliable. Accountable. Exactly what all 32 NFL teams want in their quarterbacks.

Anyone can fool you, of course. As Tiger Woods painfully taught us nearly nine years ago, what you think you see is not always the whole story. We most often see what the famous person wants us to see.

In the old days, when those who covered Hollywood shied away from reporting the truth about the actors and actresses we adored, or too many sports writers became too chummy with their subjects to report the truth, the media could be blamed for wrongful perceptions. In today's world, it's more complicated. There are walls of handlers to protect celebrities' private lives. Interview questions must be approved in advance. Social clubs and island getaways are more tightly guarded than the White House. Unless you're an idiot on the order of Johnny Manziel or a Kardashian, posting every stupid thing you do on social media, your imperfections almost always are far removed from the public's eyes and ears.

But nearly four years along, the worst criticism of Mariota around the Music City is that no one can find anything to criticize him for save perhaps a tendency to get injured.

It's as if the biggest bit of gossip on the guy might be something along the lines of: Breaking News — Mariota ate his french fries without ketchup today!

In fact, just this past week, his new offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur, actually complimented him by revealing something of a secret. Said LaFleur of Mariota: "I think he has a lot of competitive juices that don't always show to everybody out there."

And that's been true from the beginning. He never appears to get too high or too low. He's never an embarrassment on or off the field. Even his injuries probably have come from trying to hard, trying to get an extra yard or 3 when he should avoid contact. Or possibly not getting the protection every quarterback needs to avoid being broken in two.

But because of that, because those competitive juices are sometimes hidden but never absent, we also got this triple crown of brilliance when the Titans needed it most last season.

No. 1 — In desperate need of a first down to hold off the Jacksonville Jaguars inside the final three minutes of the regular-season finale to earn their first playoff appearance in nine years, Mariota scrambled 13 yards on a third-and-5, delivering a textbook stiff-arm along the way to ice the win.

Said Jags coach Doug Marrone of that play: "It's not something you are prepared for or ready for, and that's what he does and that's why he is a good quarterback."

No. 2 — In the playoff game the following week at Kansas City, Mariota caught his own pass after it was batted up in the air in the end zone and scored a touchdown.

No. 3 — Late in that postseason win, Mariota threw a key block to free running back Derrick Henry for a 22-yard gain. Asked the next week which he'd heard more about — the TD pass/catch or the block, Mariota smiled and said, "Probably the block, though the offensive line said I had to sustain it better."

Although he has thrown for 9,476 yards with 58 touchdowns and just 34 interceptions in his first three seasons, many believe Mariota needs to take it to another level this season to be seen by the masses as a good quarterback.

"Change is in the air, but I think it is change for the better for him in a lot of ways," Fox Sports analyst and former University of Tennessee defensive back Charles Davis told the Titans' website last week. "But that big leap has to happen."

Enter LaFleur, who turned the Los Angeles Rams offense into a juggernaut last season, the Rams leading the NFL in scoring last season at 29.9 points per game. Let him similarly energize the Titans offense and Mariota could challenge for AFC MVP.

But it is off the field where we should all hope that what we've seen during his first three years with the Titans is what we'll get for the rest of his career.

"First of all, like I've said all along, he is a great person," LaFleur said of Mariota last week.

For a banquet hall full of our region's finest prep athletes and coaches this Thursday, could any message be more important than that?

(NOTE: Anyone wishing tickets for the banquet should contact Kate Brennan at 423-757-6308 by Tuesday at 4 p.m.)

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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