SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Alterraun Verner is helping Titans solve problems

The cornerback and math major out of UCLA, who had to compete for a spot as a starter for Tennessee, has four interceptions and two fumble recoveries through the first quarter of the season.

Alterraun Verner

Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner celebrates after scoring on an interception return against the Houston Texans last month. Verner has been a problem solver for the Titans' defense. (Bob Levey / Getty Images / September 15, 2013)

Six weeks ago, Alterraun Verner had no guarantees he'd be a starting cornerback for the Tennessee Titans.

Today, he's made as big an impact as any defensive player in the NFL.

What are the odds of that?

Actually, Verner could calculate those for you. He was a math major at UCLA who went back to school a year after he was drafted and finished his degree.

"I wanted to knock it out as soon as I could," Verner said by phone this week, during a break from preparations for Sunday's game at Seattle. "Being a math major, there's a lot of formulas and a lot of things you have to know. The longer I waited, the harder it would have been to keep that fresh mind, that math mind, so I tried to go back as soon as I could."

Now crunch these numbers: Verner had two interceptions and a fumble recovery in a 38-13 victory over the New York Jets in Week 4, earning AFC defensive-player-of-the-week honors. Through the first quarter of the season, he has six take-aways — four interceptions, two fumble recoveries — the most in Titans history through the first four games.

While it's tempting to think of Verner as some type of helmeted John Nash — the brilliant mathematician in the movie "A Beautiful Mind" — running all types of calculations in his head before the ball is snapped, Verner says it isn't that way. He can hold a lot of information in his head, and diligently studies the game, but he also plays on instincts.

There is a correlation, however, between his math background and his football career.

"The reason why I like math, and the reason I like football, is the aspect of problem solving," he said. "It's probably just me in life situations. I like finding out if something's wrong, and trying to figure out a solution. That's what drew me to math, that brain work and trying to figure it out.

"In football, it's always a chess match, especially when you go against the really good quarterbacks and coordinators who try to game plan and scheme you. It's like a chess match where it's, 'OK, you think I'm going to do this, so you're going to run that.' That's where I'd say it's the same. The ability to diagnose what's happening and solve what they're trying to do to you."

Heading into the season — with the Titans planning to be more aggressive and play more press coverage — the 5-foot-10, 186-pound Verner was competing for a starting job with the 6-3, 198-pound Tommie Campbell, whose 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash made him especially tempting. Verner could have been demoted to third cornerback.

Not only did Verner hang onto his job, but also he's been a vacuum cleaner, who has more take-aways than seven NFL teams.

"It feels like people are starting to notice," he said. "I feel like I'm basically the same player as I've been. It's just that I've taken advantage of a lot more opportunities, and I've been a little bit more aggressive this year than in prior years."

Verner wasn't necessarily overlooked coming out of UCLA, but teams weren't elbowing their way into position to draft him. He was selected in the fourth round by the Titans, the 21st defensive back taken. Coincidentally, Tennessee made a trade with Seattle to move up in the round to grab him with the 104th selection.

"I took note of every team that took a corner before me, and it's definitely fuel for the fire," he said. "During the combine and the draft process, some teams said I'd be nothing more than a nickel, and some teams said they didn't think that I'd be able to last. They questioned my toughness. There were a lot of things I remembered through that process.

"People were doubting me because they were just looking at me for my exterior, and not what's inside of me. And what's inside of me is what's allowed me to play the way I've been playing."

And are the Titans happy?

Do the math.

Many happy returns

Since the start of the 2012 season, Chicago has returned 11 interceptions for touchdowns, most recently Tim Jennings' 48-yard runback against the New York Giants on Thursday.

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