On what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year in Jacksonville, last Wednesday’s Jaguars practice was scorching with rabid anticipation. I’m not sure the exact number of attendees, but at one point it was standing room only because both grandstands were completely full. The 95 degree heat (amplified by the reflective metal benches in the stands) was no match for the collective will of a city desperate to see their beloved Jaguars finally turn the corner after years of disappointments and missed opportunities. Plus Jacksonville is full of the toughest, most resilient people in the country, so a little heat wasn’t going to tarnish an otherwise beautiful day for football. From warm-ups to warm-downs there was plenty for the faithful to digest, both good and bad (more the former than the latter).
As far as far as football practice in shorts goes, it was pretty ordinary overall. After a team stretch lead by a handful of Jaguars veterans (including number 11 in the front center spot, which really excited me for some reason) they separated for position drills, followed by one on ones, 11 on 11, 7 on 7, more position drills, and finishing with a light scrimmage and a cool-down stretch .
Here are the things and players that stood out over those two hours of practice:
1. The Wide Receiver Position – Upon seeing Justin Blackmon for the first time with the rest of the receivers, the first impression I got was that they weren’t kidding when they listed him at 6’1”. In fact, that might be a little generous. Granted he is noticeably taller than both Mike Thomas and Lee Evans, but he seemed taller when watching him play at Oklahoma State. That being said, he definitely plays taller and faster than his measurables indicate. He caught almost everything thrown his way. There were two passes from Gabbert that were way off target that Blackmon reeled in anyway, one leaping and one sliding. Blackmon was also clearly Gabbert’s (and Henne’s for that matter) favorite target in 11 on 11’s and 7 on 7’s. He was targeted about 50% of the time he was on the field (the other 50% containing all 3 or 4 other options in a given pass attempt). This really got me excited! Blackmon is showing early signs of potentially being the reliable receiver that the Jaguars have been missing since Jimmy Smith retired. I would have liked to see some more passes thrown Laurent Robinson’s way, who is easily the Jags most physically impressive receiver. Mike Thomas had a few drops, but he also made an incredible catch towards the end of practice when he slipped as Gabbert threw a rocket towards him and Thomas ripped it out of the air over his head as he was falling down like a frog snatching a fly. The first team receivers were Blackmon, Robinson, and Thomas, with Brian Robiskie being a popular target when subbed in.
2. Aaron Ross – With Rashean Mathis still sidelined for most of practice as he enters the final stages of recovery from an ACL tear, Aaron Ross got a lot of action lining up opposite Derek Cox at the cornerback position. Throughout the entire practice Ross was the defensive player that stood out the most to me. He was all over the field, making plays, running stride for stride with Blackmon and Thomas. It may be difficult to fully judge a defensive player in a non-contact setting, but it was clear that he is an athletic, cerebral player that will improve our pass coverage and hopefully contribute to a few coverage sacks. His mouth had quite a workout too as he reminded Blackmon and Chastin West who won in their 1 on 1 drills. He also made sure to coach and advise fellow defensive backs. His two Super Bowl rings with the New York Giants seem to garner a lot of respect from his teammates and he appears to be comfortably asserting himself as a leader on defense. One of the most intriguing position battles come training camp will be Ross versus Mathis for the second starting cornerback job. Early prediction? Aaron Ross will get the nod over Shean.
3. Quarterbacks’ Performance – Okay, Blaine Gabbert is the starting quarterback and will be the opening day starter barring some unforeseen setback. But it is in the team’s best interest for us to consider the possibility of a repeat performance from last year, as unlikely as we think that is to happen. If that nightmare scenario does take place, I believe we acquired a very capable backup in Chad Henne. He never accomplished anything noteworthy but was a fairly reliable option for the Dolphins. He started 31 games in four seasons with Miami and has a 60% completion rate over his career. During Wednesday’s practice, Blaine stood out as the better talent, especially with deeper routes. Henne showed signs of what I believe a good backup quarterback possesses. He was consistent with his throws, accurate in shallow and midrange routes across the middle and underthrowing some deeper routes. He doesn’t throw it with the velocity of Gabbert, but his calm consistency and past experience makes him a great number two option for the Jaguars. Now to the Blaine train. Gabbert looked relaxed and in control throughout practice. His drop steps have a shorter stride and coaches were standing behind him making sure he didn’t hold on to the ball too long. As long as these things continue to improve, it seems likely that Blaine will have a noticeably better season in 2012.
4. The Bryan Anger Watch – There was one moment, just one, during the practice where everyone in the stands gave a round of applause. It wasn’t a Gabbert pass or a Derek Cox interception. IT WAS A PUNT!! During the punting drill early in practice, Bryan Anger displayed the greatest single punt any of us had ever seen. A guy behind me clocked it close to 6 seconds of hang time and the return man had to quickly backtrack to catch it 65 yards from the line of scrimmage. It was a booming tight spiral that soared through the air screaming “walk the walk!” as it bounced off the moon and reentered our atmosphere. Yes, I was one of the detractors. I hated the fact that we drafted a punter in the 3rd round when there were plenty of excellent position players and potential every-down starters still left in the draft. I don’t think I’ll be alone in scrutinizing him throughout the season, but if he can reproduce punts like that on a regular basis, I will gladly and graciously admit defeat and retreat to my curmudgeon lair.
Yes, it was only mini camp and the pressure, contact, and speed of real NFL games are absent. However, the characteristics of a team that plays like a team and wins like a team can be seen. The players appeared to be working hard, communicating with coaches and teammates, and generally enjoying the game of football. All of these signs are good for a team that must come together in a short amount of time given the new coaching staff and new players that will need to play key roles during the season like Ross, Robinson, Blackmon, and Andre Branch. I like the Jaguars progress to this point and hope to see further growth and cohesion as training camp approaches.