One of the great stories of the 2010 season was the play of the Titans’ rookie cornerback Alterraun Verner.
After being drafted out of UCLA in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft, Alterraun was the talk of the Titans’ camp and went on to start in 13 games and be named a finalist for NFL Rookie of the Year.
Not only does Alterraun excel on the field, he’s currently wrapping up classes at UCLA to obtain a BA in Math-Applied Science. That’s some resume, huh? Starting NFL cornerback and Math-Applied Science degree. Are you wondering which he prefers? Well, he once compared solving a math problem to sacking the quarterback.
Steve Wyremski (SW): How’s the offseason going so far? How does it differ from last year with the lockout and everything?
Alterraun Verner (AV): Last year, I was mostly training for the combine. This year, I’ve been in classes for both quarters. The training regimen is probably not as rigorous as it was last year, but I’m still training and preparing for when this lockout ends. My school schedule has been so busy [with] a full load that there’s not too much [time] to do anything else.
SW: Being back at UCLA taking those classes, what’s that all about? I know you were a Math-Applied Science major in college.
AV: I haven’t quite gotten my degree yet. I’m still in the process of getting my BA – my bachelor’s degree. So that’s why I went back to school. I knew it was possible for me to finish up. After this quarter, I should be all done and graduated so that’s what I wanted to do.
SW: Why go back to school? You just had a tremendous successful rookie season with the Titans.
AV: It was already a necessity before I even started the season. I already had it in my mind that there was going to be a window – lockout or not – that I’d be able to come back [for] the winter quarter (January to March). I wanted to get my degree. My degree is very important to me, so it was a no-brainer.
SW: The Titans recently selected one of your former Bruin teammates in the draft – Akeem Ayers. You played with him in the past at UCLA. What’d you think of the pick?
AV: I was ecstatic. Like I’ve been telling most, I’m shocked that he fell to the second round. In my head, I didn’t think it’d be too much of a possibility for us to get him because I thought he’d be gone before then. I knew for our first overall pick [that] we’d go quarterback or another direction. It’s unfortunate that he had to fall to the second round, but since he did slip I’m glad that we’re the team that picked him up. Basically, we got a steal. We got a first round talent in the second round, so I’m definitely ecstatic. I know what he can bring to the table. I’m excited to work with him again and I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do for us.
SW: Did you have any influence with that pick at all? Did anyone ask your opinion being that he was a former teammate?
AV: To be honest, I wouldn’t say so. [However,] I know during the season last year, I talked about him and a few of the other players a lot. Him, in particular, I kept on telling people he was a first round talent. [UCLA] played on primetime … when UCLA played Texas and when UCLA played Washington a lot of people on my team were able to see. Then I would come back and say, “You saw #10, you saw what he was doing.” Especially in the Texas game, he had a really good game. That’s what got a lot of people’s attention, but we have a new coaching staff, so I’m not 100% sure how that worked. Jerry Gray is a former Texas alum and he was thinking about going back to Texas, so he was probably paying attention to that UCLA/Texas game and got a good chance to see [Akeem] in action. I wouldn’t say I personally influenced it, but maybe I helped out a little bit because he saw I was able to do well and maybe he can follow suit. It could be many different factors, but I’m not 100% sure how I influenced it.
SW: With the lockout going on and you existing relationship with Akeem and him not being able to get his hands on a playbook, do you have any plans for the two of you to meet up so he can get up to speed with the Titan’s “D” and be ready when the season starts up?
AV: Oh yes, we’ve been trying to take those steps this past week. We’re trying to get him up to speed. I know Coach Gray told me before the whole lockout thing happened that he’s going to try and keep the playbook relatively [consistent]. Off of my prior knowledge, I was going to try and help Akeem on things that I feel will be pretty much the same as last year. Just that little bit can help him out so he can be acquainted with some of the terminology by the time we get back. We’re definitely doing it, our schedules are kind of conflicting [with] me being in school and him doing his own training regimen away from school, but we’re definitely trying to get together.
SW: You were a 3-time academic All-Pac 10 team member when you were back at UCLA. You were also in a commercial back then promoting the Math program. In it you said, “When you hit the quarterback, it’s a great feeling, but solving a math problem gives me a bigger buzz.” Is that really true?
AV: [Laughs] It’s kind of true. I technically have never had a quarterback so I definitely don’t know really how it feels. So, technically it is true. It does give me great excitement when it’s a tough math problem and I do find the answer, but I’m not 100% sure it would be completely true if I were sacking the quarterback. I almost did on Peyton Manning this year, but they didn’t really count it. I know it did feel good to get a hit on him, so I’m not sure if it’d be 100% true but technically it is true. [by the way, PFF credited Verner with the sack on that play]
SW: Anyone rag on you in the locker room at UCLA or in your rookie season with the Titans for that comment?
AV: Definitely when I was at UCLA I got heat for it. I don’t think too many people on the Titans really knew about it, so I didn’t get any heat about it … but definitely when I was at UCLA.
SW: Are you able to apply the math background at all on the field?
AV: Not as much as most people would probably think. Problem solving, critical thinking, and analytical thinking are where it parallels. In a game, I like to say it’s a problem in trying to stop the offense. They know what they’re doing and they know the answer to the problem. It’s our job [as the defense] to figure out an answer or a solution. During the course of the week and throughout the game, you’re trying to [solve] this complex problem. If I can crack the code and find out what they’re trying to do, then I’m able to play and do what I want to do.
SW: Last year in your rookie year, you were a finalist for the NFL rookie of the year. How did that compare to the expectations you had going into the season?
AV: Oh man … it was definitely overwhelming. With me being a fourth rounder out of UCLA, I didn’t have too many expectations. They told me I was going to compete for a starting job, but I would not have thought that I would have started. My expectations weren’t to play that much and [I expected] to contribute mostly on special teams this year. We had Jason [McCourty] and Cortland Finnegan. Not only rookie of the year, but I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to start and play as much as I did as a rookie. It definitely exceeded my expectations to be known as one of the better rookies in the NFL by making the final list or being mentioned in the talks with all of the great rookies that we had this year with Devin McCourty, Joe Haden, Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh and all the others. It was definitely an honor.
SW: [Explain Pro Football Focus.] Your overall grade was +6.1, which ranked you as the 21st corner in the league. How does that compare to where you’d rank yourself among the league’s corners?
AV: It’s kind of hard because I wasn’t able to follow a lot of corners because we’re playing at the same time. Because I’m a young person, I can’t really say I’m one of the best, but I feel like I can be and that’s what I strive to be. That would be accurate or even a little higher. In fact, I think I looked at [Pro Football Focus] a lot. I was very shocked at my ratings. Me and my dad would look at it and it tripped me out a couple times. I would say it’s higher than I thought I was going to be. It gave me a little bit of confidence in saying that I can play with some of the better corners in the league. There are 32 teams and 2 corners per team … that’s 64, so I was rated in the top half. That’s pretty exceptional and I’m pretty excited.
SW: In 2010, you finished with 80 solo tackles, which was 3rd among corners. Cortland Finnegan was in the top three as well, so the Titans had two guys in the top 3 in tackles. Why is that? Is it scheme? Issues on the defensive line and linebackers with people getting to the next level?
AV: It’s probably more scheme. Our secondary, we’re taught to do a lot and make a lot of plays. With me playing nickel a lot, I was more in the box so I had to fill gaps [and] that contributed to me having a lot of tackles. I wouldn’t say it was a deficiency in the defensive line or linebackers.
SW: You also only missed 6 tackles. If you look at missed tackles as a percentage of snaps, you’d rank 9th best in the league among corners. What do you attribute that to?
AV: It’s attributed to my background. I grew up being a linebacker believe it or not, so I always have the linebacker tackling sense. I’ve never been a devastating hitter or a big hitter, but I try to technically wrap up and do my best.
SW: Looking at your numbers further, the one thing I’ll call a “negative” is the wide receiver catch percentage against you, which was around 69% and ranked 14th worst in the league. What do you think you need to do in order to improve on that?
AV: There were a couple of times I felt like I was in good position and I didn’t make a play on the person per se, but I would say that statistic is a bit misleading. I felt like during the season, I really didn’t get passes thrown at me that much. From looking at tape, my coverage was pretty decent so quarterbacks weren’t throwing at me. The only times they did throw at me was when receivers were open (which were a few times). If you take the amount of passes thrown at me as compared to another corner where they were thrown at way more, they had more opportunities to make plays on the ball to make their percentage go down. I only had a few opportunities and they were probably shorter passes and that’s why I didn’t have that many touchdowns against me or deeper passes against me. There was a lot of short dinky stuff because there were zones or other coverages we had. In a couple of weeks, I didn’t get the ball thrown at me … only once or twice, but they completed both of those or the one. That’s 100%, but they only threw twice at me.
SW: What you’re saying is correct. When you look at the numbers, the yards per catch against you is very low. I was just wondering if the catch percentage was more from playing back resulting in more tackles on shorter passes.
AV: There were a lot of times I played a little bit off and that could contribute to the shorter completions. I would agree that’s a fair assessment. I would say I tried to mix it up a lot. I wasn’t afraid to get beat deep or anything like that, [though] sometimes I felt like I was going to play off a little bit.
SW: What are you now working on this offseason to continue to improve?
AV: It would be the statistic that you talked about. I always dislike when quarterbacks are completing the ball on me. One of the worst ones I had was when we were playing the Colts. [Peyton] had a lot of completions on me on the first drive of that game. He may have had three or four completions on that first drive and I hate when that happens. Obviously, all corners hate that. The one way that helped me out was that I realized that when I pressed (used press coverage), less passes are thrown at me and less passes are completed. So, if I’m able to master that technique wise then I think I’ll become a better player.
SW: It’s interesting that you mention that Colts game. That’s where I was going to go next. In our rankings, we have that as your toughest game of the season. Peyton threw at you seven times and completed seven passes. Do you agree that that Colts games was the toughest of the year for you?
AV: I would say definitely in the beginning. A couple of those catches weren’t my play to make, but it looked like it because of stuff that happened on the defense. Like I said, especially the first half and the first drive where he got four of those. It was the first time I was playing against Peyton Manning and I wasn’t as familiar with a lot of stuff and I wasn’t making plays on the ball. I was able to adjust during the game and that’s why I felt like I played better the second game [against the Colts]. I felt like as I was playing against him, I was able to get a better feel for him. I would agree that was one of my toughest because Peyton Manning is … Peyton Manning. [Laughs] It’s self-explanatory.
SW: In 2011, are we going to see you in Honolulu in February?
AV: That would definitely be nice and something I would love to happen. I would rather be in the Super Bowl. That’s [my] expectation. I’m going to try and improve my game and try to help this team as much as I can to get to a Super Bowl. That will be even sweeter than going to any Pro Bowl, so that’s my main focus right now.
Working to get the Titans to a Super Bowl and completing your BA in Math Applied Science, that’s quite the challenge. After watching his success in his rookie season and ending the year as one of the top rookies among many who were first round picks, nothing seems like it’s too much of a challenge. Alterraun will just consider it all one big math problem. We know how those usually end for him …