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The growth continues

Posted Dec 28, 2011

Teammates, coaches say Nwaneri playing as well as he has in five Jaguars seasons

In a sense, Uche Nwaneri doesn’t see his season as all that unusual.

Nwaneri, the Jaguars’ fifth-year veteran offensive guard, said he probably has had his best NFL season, and while that’s the consensus of many around the Jaguars, Nwaneri said that isn’t by itself overly noteworthy.

He’s a veteran well into his NFL learning curve, and he’s a veteran who spent the off-season focused and determined to improve.

In a way, he said, having his best season was exactly what should have happened.

“It’s part of growing as a lineman,” Nwaneri said.

As the Jaguars (4-11) prepare to play the Indianapolis Colts (2-13) in the 2011 regular-season finale at EverBank Field Sunday at 1 p.m., indications are clear that Nwaneri not only has grown, but continues to do.

The Jaguars, despite often facing defenses that are stacking nine and sometimes 10 players near the line of scrimmage, are 13th in the NFL in rushing, and running back Maurice Jones-Drew not only leads the NFL in rushing by 127 yards, he is well within range of the franchise rushing record.

As Jones-Drew put it Wednesday, excelling in such situations isn’t easy, and there are many reasons the offense has continued to run effectively. Nwaneri is high on the list.

“He’s played some of the best ball he has played since he’s been here,” Jaguars interim coach Mel Tucker said. “He’s getting better, really, at this point of the season. His finish is better, his pad level is better, his base is better and he has better leverage.

“That he’s getting better at this point just shows you what kind of person he is. He has pride in his performance, and he wants to be able to help the team.”

Said Jaguars center Brad Meester, “He has definitely grown. Just the way he has played out there, approaching the games – he is having a tremendous season. I’d say it’s a Pro Bowl season, the way he has been playing out there.”

Nwaneri said his improvement this season actually started well before the season began.

Although NFL players spent much of the off-season locked out and unable to practice with their teams and work out at team facilities, Nwaneri said he worked out extensively to prepare for the season. He conditioned heavily with left tackle Eugene Monroe focusing on hand positioning, sets and strengthening his core.

“Things that provide stability as a lineman,” he said. “Coming into camp, that was a big thing, trying to keep my base. I wanted to play with a solid core and be able to sustain blocks.

“I look at it like in a lot of aspects I’m playing my best ball. In the past few years I’ve played well. But there have been a couple of games where I’ve been inconsistent. There were technique things I wanted to clean up and in this year I’ve accomplished a lot of that.”

Although Nwaneri said he feels he always was strong mentally, he said he worked to improve that area, too, and said staying motivated and focused was a constant priority.

“I talk with myself before plays, after plays, in the huddle – everything,” he said. “I know coming into the season that was something I talked to myself about, that this had to be my best year so far. I think I took steps forward this year and was able to be consistent every game and be the same guy.

“I didn’t want to be somebody who you know can play well, but you’re asking, ‘Is he going to play well this week?’ I think I was able to get that done, but at the same time, that’s just a piece of the puzzle.”

Nwaneri said the bigger piece is improving as a player, a line, an offense and a team enough to improve the record drastically next season. He also said he believes the line as a unit has potential to be significantly better moving forward, and said experience playing together will help in much the same sense experience helped him individually.

 “As a rookie, you’re worried more about assignments,” he said. “As you get older, you start worrying about how to get it done. How do you attack a weakness? How do you nullify a strength? Those are all things I started understanding more and more as the years went on.

“It’s hard for lineman to come in and be successful immediately. There’s a growing process. There are growing pains, same at any position, but it can be exploited a little more as a lineman because of the cohesion you need. One person is a little off and it can ruin the whole play. But this year has been my best year.”

And while fans, players and coaches, did not vote Nwaneri into the Pro Bowl, Meester said that doesn’t diminish Nwaneri’s season.

“He has done a great job not only in technique, but communication on the line and helping make the calls,” Meester said. “You can truly see his growth in his play and his approach to the game. He really has come into his own. He has all the ability in the world, and to see him grow like this has been tremendous. I think he’s going to continue to grow and get even better.”

Said Nwaneri, “I’m still learning new things. By no means do I know everything. I’ve been pretty happy with this season as far as individual performance, but I still want to grow and still want to get better. There should be things next year that I can improve on from this season.”

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