Behind-the-scenes tales of greatness for Tennessee Titans' top targets in 2023 NFL Draft

Countless words have been written in the lead-up to the 2023 NFL Draft.

When the first round begins Thursday, there'll be many fans who already know about these players' accolades, 40-yard dash times and character. But all of the prospects are more than what's on the scouting report.

The Tennessee Titans can go a number of directions with the No. 11 pick, ranging from offensive line to wide receiver to even quarterback.

The Tennessean spent the past week going beyond the scouting report to tell some untold stories about the Titans' top prospects:

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Jaxon Smith-Njigba never lets the ball touch the ground

Wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba's junior season at Rockwall High School ended with a second-round playoff loss to Allen High. Not two weeks later, he texted quarterback Braedyn Locke, then a freshman, about private throwing sessions for the pair to build chemistry.

Locke, now a redshirt freshman at Wisconsin, says he never saw Smith-Njigba let a ball hit the ground. Not in practice. Not in games. Not even coming off the Jugs machine.

The next spring, during a simulated third-down drill, the usually supportive Smith-Njigba chirped at Locke for the first and last time. Locke threw incomplete to a teammate who, crucially, wasn't Smith-Njigba.

"He comes over to the sideline and he was just barking at me ‘Third down is my down. It’s my down. Third down is my down,’" Locke remembers. "From there on I didn’t even question it. Whatever happens, I’m just going to find 11 every time."

That approach came in handy that fall during a second-round playoff rematch against Allen. Rockwall won 60-59. Smith-Njigba caught 15 passes for 258 yards and five touchdowns.

Peter Skoronski protects quarterbacks and hallways alike

For an artist, every sunset is a canvas. For Peter Skoronski, every narrow space is a pocket he can be protecting.

"A basketball player would walk down hallways and fake a crossover dribble," said Dave Inserra, Skoronski's coach at Maine South High School. "He was a guy that almost no matter where he was he’d be doing kickslides and punches. Whether he was standing in PE class or coming down the hallway."

On Aug. 11, 2020, the Big Ten canceled its football season, weeks before Skoronski's first season at Northwestern was set to begin. On Sept. 16, the league reinstated the season. Barely a month later, with no spring or summer practices to lean on and just a handful of camp days as preparation, Skoronski didn't allow a sack, pressure or hurry in his first collegiate start, a 43-3 win over Maryland.

Maine South offensive line coach Rob Zima was the man who encouraged Skoronski to practice his pass sets in the hallway. The practice paid off, but Zima doesn't want credit.

"Really I feel lucky that I didn’t crash the Ferrari," Zima said. "I didn’t screw him up. That’s my claim to fame."

Paris Johnson Jr. owes it all to a mother's sacrifice

Ohio State tackle Paris Johnson Jr. is a lot of things. He's a philanthropist invested in the lives of military families and underprivileged youth athletes. He's multilingual. He's a former hockey player and former gymnast and former student journalist. He's happy to brag he's better at playing Madden than Chicago Bears QB Justin Fields. But most of all, he's thankful for Monica Daniels, the mother who believed in him.

"She sacrificed a lot to put me in position to be here," Johnson said. "She sold her house so I could switch schools and early enroll at Ohio State. There’s not a lot of parents who would do that to believe in their kid. I told her stuff I wanted to do and she did it. She quit her job so I could take the 10,000 college visits I did and get all the photo shoot pictures in and whatnot and see the campuses. For me she’s been a blessing. She’s been super supportive. She’s been a rock with me in my journey since the beginning and the start."

The quarterbacks all have something to prove

Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker knows NFL teams will have questions about the offense he thrived in in Knoxville. His response? "I can’t help that defenders can’t guard my receivers."

Kentucky QB Will Levis wants teams to know his morals, his values, how his quarterback play is an extension of the work he puts into himself. Oh, and also that his arm is a cannon and he wants to show it off.

Florida QB Anthony Richardson welcomes the comparisons to Cam Newton and Lamar Jackson. But he also wants teams to know he's watching film on Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Josh Allen and believes he can make the big-time throws those stars do.

Even projected No. 1 pick Bryce Young has doubters. He's small. He's fragile. Someone with his build can never make it.

Kyle Jones-Sullivan knows firsthand the effect Young can have on a team. Jones-Sullivan was an upperclassman when Young arrived at Cathedral High School. When Jones-Sullivan got his first start at center, the younger Young was his rock. Jones-Sullivan lost his temper and nearly got kicked out of the game. Young pulled Jones-Sullivan aside and told him the team needed him to act like a captain. That Young had confidence in him melted away all of Jones-Sullivan's angst.

"I've told people that it was a blessing to have actually played with him," Jones-Sullivan says. "It was a blessing because I got a chance to see him work his magic on the field firsthand."

Nick Suss is the Titans beat writer for The Tennessean. Contact Nick at Follow Nick on Twitter @nicksuss.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: For Tennessee Titans' projected NFL draft picks, these stories tell all