When Titans coach Mike Vrabel discussed the trust that third-round pick Tyjae Spears has earned, he didn’t mention the rookie’s electrifying 33-yard touchdown run against the Vikings in Tennessee’s second preseason game, when he gracefully hurdled safety Lewis Cine en route to the end zone. He didn’t talk about the impressive stiff arms against the BearsEddie Jackson or PatriotsJack Jones

Instead, Vrabel pointed to a moment during joint practices with the Vikings, when Spears met a blitzing linebacker in the hole and held firm. The coach showed the film to the entire team. 

Titans defenders, seeing it for the first time, let out an audible reaction, impressed with the rookie’s effort.  

“That’s the way a young running back earns the respect of his teammates,” Vrabel said Wednesday. “That they’re able to protect the guy with the ball, not just do what they do with the ball. We’ve seen examples of him making plays with the football in his hands, but it’s how you play without the football that I think really guys appreciate, or certainly I appreciate.”

That trust has helped fuel Spears’ positioning as a key member of the Titans’ offense. 

Health questions surrounded Spears when he joined Tennessee, despite his elite production last season at Tulane — 1,780 scrimmage yards, including 1,528 rushing, and 21 touchdowns (19 rushing). He has torn his right ACL twice. NFL Network reported that he has arthritis and no ACL in his right knee. The injury questions hurt his draft stock. But Spears’ showing in training camp and the preseason has many excited about his potential as a complement to superstar Derrick Henry in the Titans’ run game.

Spears will make his NFL regular-season debut Sunday against the Saints in New Orleans, a 50-minute drive from his hometown of Ponchatoula, Louisiana. 

“It’s definitely going to be cool to see many faces that I know in the stands,” he said Thursday. 

Spears registered 22 carries for 117 yards and a touchdown in three preseason games, averaging more than 5.3 yards per carry. His quickness and elusiveness were on full display. 

The 5-foot-10, 200-pound tailback has a skill set that can be deployed in various personnel groupings, including two-running-back sets with Henry, giving new play-caller Tim Kelly more avenues to attack and put pressure on the defense. 

“Most people with his size and his ability are unable to finish runs and tack on an extra four yards,” Tulane assistant Derrick Sherman, Spears’ running backs coach last season, told FOX Sports. “Some aren’t willing and able, but he has a knack for it. He has a knack for seeing two defenders and splitting them. … If there’s four [yards] to get on the run, he’s going to figure out how to get you seven or eight. That’s his game and that makes him really special.”

Right guard Daniel Brunskill, who joined the Titans this season as a free agent, said he is impressed with how quickly Spears has picked up the offense, too. Within the first few days of OTAs, the veteran said, Spears was asking questions until he was seeing the game as the coaches did. 

“For a rookie, you don’t see that very much,” Brunskill told FOX Sports. “Usually, they’re scrambling. It’s hard for them to pick up a new playbook that’s this difficult, and I thought that was really good by him.”

Spears showed the same tendencies at Tulane, according to Sherman. Entering his last year of college, Spears would take plenty of notes, asking questions about general offensive and defensive philosophy. He wanted to understand the difference between and under and over fronts. 

The attention to detail, Sherman said, slowed the game down for him. It reduced his thinking. 

“By the time we got week to week,” Sherman explained, “he knew what was going on, and he would flip back through those notebooks that he had and kind of make it all make sense and click for him.”

Spears learned and took something from each of his teammates in Tulane’s running backs room, including freshmen, whether it was their demeanor or play style. It’s why Sherman sees him making a smooth transition to a room led by Henry. 

Spears said the star running back has already provided plenty of wisdom.

“Just asking questions in those dark times and those long days of camp, the biggest thing he told me is keep going,” he said. “[That] I got something in me.” 

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When Spears declared for the draft, leaving college eligibility on the table, Sherman offered clear advice: “Don’t change.” 

That’s why he was so proud when he saw Spears reach the end zone in the preseason game at Minnesota, with that dazzling 33-yard run. It wasn’t because he scored his first professional touchdown. It was because of the 10 teammates on the field who joined him in the end zone. 

“That told me he’s still the same guy people have just that type of respect for,” Sherman said, “and genuine interest in that guy being successful because of how he is.”

It’s the little things Spears has done to build trust. 

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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