NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee safety Kevin Byard is hoping to scratch one more thing off his bucket list.
The second-year safety tied for the league-lead with eight interceptions and led the NFL with 10 total takeaways, though he has yet to reach the end zone. Byard sees no better time than Saturday when the Titans (9-7) visit the Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) in an AFC wild-card game in his postseason debut.
“I’m just hoping to get in the end zone this time I can get an interception,” Byard said. “That’s just my whole thing, trying to help this team anyway I can.”
Byard just earned his second AFC defensive player of the week award for adding two more interceptions in a 15-10 win over Jacksonville in helping the Titans clinch their first playoff berth since 2008. Scoring off Alex Smith won’t be easy with the Chiefs quarterback having been intercepted only five times all season.
Coach Mike Mularkey believes Byard is the kind of player who can help the Titans win their first playoff game since January 2004. Mularkey also has no problem with how confident Byard is.
“He backs it up, that’s the best part about it,” Mularkey said. “He’s not a big talker, trash talker. He’s not cocky at all. He’s a good football player, has a lot of confidence. We all have a lot of confidence in Kevin. He deserves it. He shows if you do what you’re asked to do and you’re in the right place, good things happen and it continues to happen for him.”
The Titans took advantage of geography in making Byard the first pick of the third round in 2016 after he set a school record with 19 interceptions at Middle Tennessee where he landed after Kentucky pulled a scholarship late. His performance wasn’t enough to earn Byard an invitation to the NFL combine.
Once with the Titans, the 5-foot-11, 212-pound Byard impressed coaches and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau with how quickly he picked up the complicated schemes. Byard started the final seven games of his rookie season. Byard didn’t get his first interception in the NFL until his 20th career game, but he’s the kind of safety that gets his hands on passes in bunches.
Byard picked off three passes in a win at Cleveland on Oct. 22, then he grabbed two more in a win over Baltimore on Nov. 5. That put him atop the NFL for a few weeks with six interceptions .
That’s a big reason why Byard won the fan voting to start at safety for the AFC in the Pro Bowl. But Byard wound up as an alternate after voting by coaches and players, though he said Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle reached out to him after the roster was announced. He says Weddle told him to keep his head up and offered to watch film with him.
LeBeau isn’t about to compare Byard to safeties he’s coached in the past, like Troy Polamalu who’s among Byard’s football role models with Ed Reed and Brian Dawkins. That would be too much pressure for any young player. But LeBeau says like Polamalu, he knew quickly that Byard would do OK in the NFL.
“He’s a player that’s on the rise no question about it, and he’s playing great football,” LeBeau said.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker