From the start, things were clearly different as the tempo of the practice was more upbeat, and the improvements in speed on both sides of the ball were readily apparent. It is still just a practice in underwear, but there was still plenty to note and enjoy from seeing the boys back on the field.
Some of the notable non-participants that I saw out there included Donovin Darius, George Wrighster, Reggie Hayward, and Marcus Stroud. Stroud was walking around carrying a massive walking stick, but showed no evidence of a limp. These players were held out, as expected, because they're all rehabbing various injuries. There's no need to risk their health in a passing camp.
A few other personnel notes to mention. Bobby McCray did not attend, as anticipated because of contract issues. The surprise was Chris Naeole, who did participate in practice today, indicating that his contract issues will only keep him from participating in voluntary activities.
There were a couple of players that were on the field that did participate that bare watching. Greg Jones did participate, at least on a limited basis. He's still moving around with a noticeable limp, indicating that his progress, while commendable, may not have him fully up to speed and ready to go for the start of training camp.
Fred Taylor was on the field, and looked terrific out there. His Miami conditioning regimen is continuing to reap rewards that the team will benefit greatly from. Maurice Drew also looks trimmer, and in great shape.
Tony McDaniel, who shows on the roster at 6'7", 295, looks bigger than that, on par with Marcus Stroud, who is 10-15 lbs heavier. He appears to have bulked up a good bit this off-season, and doesn't seem to have lost a step in the process. During the off-season, it had been reported that Brent Hawkins was also working on getting heavier so that he could become a full time defensive end. Well, he has bulked up some, but he still looks more like a linebacker than an end, so we will have to see how that progresses.
New offensive lineman, Tony Pashos, is a mountain. He's the biggest offensive lineman on the roster, and it doesn't require a roster to validate that. Just eyeballing the entire offensive line crew, Pashos is bigger than any of the other guys out there. Watching him during line drills, he's got terrific footwork for a man his size.
One real interesting thing to note is that as the players were coming from Jax Municipal over to the practice fields, as they walked the gauntlet between facilities, the fans were lined up on either side of the gates to welcome the guys back. The player that got the biggest cheer coming out of the locker room was a clearly trimmer, and better conditioned Byron Leftwich. His off-season conditioning in Miami is clearly changing the overall look he has when you see him in person. After hearing all of the media reports giving varying indications as to how noticeable it was, seeing it for myself confirmed that he is in better shape.
Now that I have touched on some personnel items, let's get to the drills.
Special Teams Drills:
They started the practice with a special teams drill on the nearest practice field. It was interesting to watch because the new punter, Adam Podlesh, was on display for the fans to get a sense for what we have moving forward. He didn't disappoint. If the Jaguars were more intent on directional punting and hang-time than 60-70 yard punts, they got their guy. Oh, and he can boom it too, putting up a couple of 60+ yard punts during the session. I don't recall seeing anyone put the ball as high as he does off the foot. And don't let anyone fool you; he's got plenty of distance on his punts. The nice thing to watch is that he can kick it to either sideline. There were a few shanks in the mix, but overall, he got the crowd very interested, drawing some of the bigger cheers in the practice session.
They split the quarterbacks up into separate drills, sending 2 to the middle field and 2 to the field turf to do different drills. On the field turf, it was more or less a 5 on 5 drill that they were working on with defensive backs and linebackers, while the other crew was working on the more vertical passing game, practicing deep routes with coverage.
- Quinn Gray was up to his usual antics, struggling to hit his target consistently. The difference this year is that, while not all together on target, he wasn't as miserably inaccurate as he has been in previous camps, so the balls were catchable. Clearly, he has a big arm, and can flick the ball from his ear with serious velocity, but throughout practice, his accuracy issues did cause him some problems.
- On one play in particular, his inaccuracy resulted in a great reach behind grab by Marcedes Lewis on a crossing route in traffic that required Marcedes to spin and make the grab.
- During deep passing drills, the Jaguars clearly are working on developing chemistry between Byron and the receivers. He had both of the rookie receivers on the middle field for deep drills (Mike Walker and John Broussard), along with Reggie Williams, Ernest Wilford, and Dennis Northcutt. All of them had the opportunity to get out there and stretch the field, and all made some nice plays in the individual drills.
- Broussard appears to be the new Cortez Hankton. He's got spindly legs, but the kid makes plays. He was one of the few receivers out there aside from Charles Sharon that was willing to extend and make diving plays on the field. He made a couple of absolutely wonderful grabs on 50+ yard bombs from Byron where he fully extended and made the grabs.
- Scott Starks was able to give a glimpse of what he could add to the defense, getting in the mix with Reggie Williams and batting away a deep ball from Byron during the session.
- On a deep post route, Ernest Wilford showed surprising speed, running right by Terry Cousin and making a grab in stride on from Byron.
- Lester Ricard got a nice welcome from the defense when he threw a pass in the seam that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Jorge Cordova which brought an interesting chant from the defense.
- Mike Walker, who some have said is nothing but a speed receiver who doesn't have the footwork to have success in the NFL pulled a double move on a deep corner route that left his coverage frozen, and allowed him to haul in a big grab from Byron Leftwich.
- Quinn Gray's struggles with accuracy bit him when he threw high and behind his intended receiver, Marcedes Lewis. Lewis tried to make an adjustment for the ball, but it was impossible for him to recover and get it. The ball was tipped, and intercepted by Nick Sorensen, who returned it for another touchdown.
- John Broussard made a fully extended, diving and rolling grab on a pass in the seam from David Garrard that was delivered a little low and away from his intended target. Broussard showed good hands throughout practice, and this play in particular validated that fact. It was a shoestring grab that he made in traffic.
- Garrard struggled with some of his shorter passes, including dump offs where he couldn't quite get the feel down. On one particular play, Fred rolled out of the backfield and into the flat. Garrard looked that way, rolled and threw to a wide open Taylor . Unfortunately, he threw the ball high and to the wrong shoulder as Taylor was in stride, causing the ball to fall incomplete behind the running back.
- Mike Walker continued to impress throughout the session with his ability to cut and go. Granted, it's shorts and shirts, and the contact was minimal at best, but this kid really can fly, and all he did all day long out there was catch passes. Not a single drop that I saw during the entire session on anything that was remotely catchable. Both he and Broussard showed that they have the ability to stretch the field and make plays, and neither one was afraid to do so over the middle when the play required them to do so. I do have some concern about durability with Broussard. His legs are alarmingly skinny. I guess that's to be expected because of his speed, but one good shot from a linebacker or DB and I'd be worried about those legs snapping like chicken bones. Of course, if he spends all day long running by them, this shouldn't be a concern.
- It is clear that the Tight End is going to be an integral part of Koetter's new offensive scheme. There were a lot of 2 TE sets that were run during practice, and in almost every case, these guys weren't in there to block. Both Wiggins and Marcedes Lewis made some nice catches over the middle in mid-range passes running quick slants or outs.
- Wiggins did have a couple of drops, but overall, he looks like the pass catching TE that we were expecting. He really looks more like a fullback than a TE, but the guy can still make plays and runs nice routes.
- One nice surprise was rookie free agent, Jimmy Ferris. The guy made a few nice plays during the practice session, coming out of nowhere to grab some tough ones along the sideline in double-coverage. He's small, but he seems to have a nose for finding the hole, much like we saw from Chad Owens in the past.
- Dennis Northcutt definitely has the speed to stretch the field. He ran a deep post out of the slot against Chris Roberson and he kicked in the jets about 30 yards downfield when Roberson was staying with him stride-for-stride, and Northcutt put 5 yards between the two of them before you could blink an eye.
- Reggie Williams continues to show improvement looking much quicker off the line and running what I felt where the best routes of any receiver out there. It was good to see that he's putting so much attention into effectively running the routes. He made quite a few nice grabs going over the middle on quick slants where he was able to get the inside line on his coverage, using his body to protect the ball, and making the catches in stride.
- One of the big concerns that the naysayers have been howling about was that by not being here, Byron was setting back the opportunity to develop chemistry and timing with his receivers. After watching this practice session, I'd say they were wrong. On one particular play, a quick out, Leftwich put the ball on the spot before Williams had even come out of his break or turned to see the ball. Byron threw to a spot, and when Williams came out of his break, he had shaken overage and made the catch. There was no sign of rust, or issues with timing at all during the session, and this play exemplified that fact.
- David Garrard showed his ability to throw on the run as he rolled left on one particular play, then turn and threw the opposite way, hitting Charles Sharon on the right side of the field in a crossing route.
- Sharon and Garrard connected again on the next play where the gun toting receiver made a nice diving catch on a pass over the middle, then was heads-up enough to realize he hadn't been touched, rolled, got up, and made a nice gain on the play.
- To anyone that says Byron does not have touch on short passes, if you attended the practice today, you need to let us know how that crow tastes. On several short dump-offs, Leftwich showed great touch putting the ball over linemen and dropping it right in the hands of his running backs. They were not delivered with the velocity that some here claim he always does, and in fact were nicely delivered in stride to the intended targets.
One thing to note was that Brent Hawkins was putting pressure on the QBs throughout the drills, and it clearly started to frustrate Tony Pashos. While he did hold off the rush, there was obviously some heat between Hawkins and the new tackle, which bubbled up into a bit of a shoving match between plays as Hawkins walked right through the huddle on the way back to the other side of the ball. He's showing a little swagger this year, which should be interesting to watch.
All in all, it was a pretty solid practice for what it was. The team is clearly focused on getting faster on both sides of the ball, and the additions on defense and the new receivers validate that.
I didn't mention Reggie Nelson because they didn't really try to attack him during the session. He was out there, and in individual drills, he showed nice hands and great quickness. So quick in fact that on one play, he ran right out of his shoe when he came up to help out in run support.
As I stated at the beginning, the tempo for practice today was significantly upbeat, and more crisp than I can recall prior passing camps being. We didn't see the expected rust in the passing game, as the quarterbacks were all on target more often than not, and the receivers were running nice routes.
The Jaguars clearly have a lot of work to do in order to prepare for the upcoming season, but this is a good start.