JACKSONVILLE – Bob Babich saw what he expected to see.
And because what he expected was progress, Babich and the rest of the Jaguars' coaching staff liked what they saw from the Jaguars' secondary this past season.
This was a group that lacked experience. This was a group that had never played together.
This was a group that lacked a lot of name recognition.
Babich said what it didn't lack was a desire to work and improve. As a group, it did those things, which made the 2013 season a successful one for the Jaguars' defensive backs.
"As you go along throughout the season, you're naturally going to progress from a play standpoint," Babich said recently in an interview with jaguars.com for this series on the Jaguars' position groups, a series that continues with this story focusing on the secondary.
"Just understanding the speed of the game, the type of receivers you're defending, how to tackle an NFL running back – there are a lot of different things that go into it. They all worked extremely hard to become NFL football players."
For the majority of a young secondary that was the task this past season.
That's because the Jaguars didn't just start the season young. They started it really young and kept getting younger, with rookie cornerback Dwayne Gratz and rookie safety Johnathan Cyprien starting the regular-season opener, and rookie safety Josh Evans moving into the starting lineup after veteran Dwight Lowery sustained a season-ending concussion in Week 3.
Evans ended the season splitting time with second-year veteran Winston Guy, but for much of the season, Evans, Gratz, Cyprien and Guy took the majority of the snaps along with veteran newcomers Alan Ball and Will Blackmon at cornerback.
Some variation of that group usually formed the core of the secondary, which was what the Jaguars expected and wanted last offseason when they made the decision to essentially rebuild the secondary in the first season under Head Coach Gus Bradley and General Manager David Caldwell.
The theory was it generally took longer for a defensive backfield to mature and play together than most positions, so best to build that area first.
"They still have to progress, but we're very pleased with their effort and play," Babich said.
The secondary wasn't strictly about youth, with Ball – a sixth-year veteran who signed as an unrestricted free agent from Houston before the season – quickly taking a leadership role. He intercepted two passes and defensed 14, starting 15 games and making 47 tackles.
"Alan Ball did a great job being the vet in there," Babich said. "What a pro. He came in and did a really good job for us."
At the other corner, Gratz dealt with injuries, but played well enough in eight games as a starter that Caldwell and Bradley each said following the season they like him as a starter going forward. The 2013 third-round draft selection showed a knack for making plays on the ball, intercepting two passes with two passes defensed and 32 tackles.
Gratz sustained a high-ankle sprain in the regular-season opener, and then returned to the starting lineup following the team's Week 9 bye week.
"From the open date on, he progressed as we hoped he would progress," Babich said. "He did do a very good job. We know he's got to get better, but we were pleased. He's physical. He's not intimidated by any of the receivers he goes against. He played aggressively. You have to tackle as a corner in this system and he did that. He was comfortable out there playing. It was not too big for him."
Cyprien, the first selection of the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, also improved following the Week 9 bye, showing signs of developing into one of the franchise's core players. He finished with 98 tackles, six passes defensed, an interception, a sack and two forced fumbles.
"We're very pleased with Johnathan's progress throughout the system," Babich said. "We feel like he fits our system and we feel like he's just getting better and better as he goes along. Once you understand what playing in the NFL is about, you start to adjust. He did a good job of doing that.
"He's a very good football player with an excellent attitude who we want to be part of our organization."
Evans, a sixth-round selection from Florida, started 11 games with 54 tackles, while Guy started two games with a pass defenses and 24 tackles. Guy also was a standout special teams player after being claimed off waivers the week of the regular-season opener.
Blackmon, a seventh-year veteran who signed as a free agent late in training camp, started eight games in place of Gratz, turning in one of the biggest plays of the season – a sack/strip/fumble recovery for a game-clinching touchdown at Tennessee in Week 10. He finished with 10 passes defensed, a sack and an interception with 40 tackles.
Second-year veteran Mike Harris played in all 16 games, primarily seeing action at nickelback. He defensed two passes and had 34 tackles for a group that Babich said overall adapted well throughout the season to a new defensive scheme with new techniques.
"The good thing is it's the way we do things and we believe in it," Babich said. "From the first day they came in, that's what we taught them. It took them a while to get the techniques down because it is a unique technique and a unique playing style. But they did a good job working hard every day.
"Coach (DeWayne) Walker and Coach (Mike) Rutenberg did a great job coaching these guys up. They bought in from the get-go, and it was fun to watch."
And as enjoyable as 2013 may have been in that area, Babich said the experience gained could make the secondary even more fun moving forward.
"That many young guys on the back end was a unique situation, but it was fun to come to work every day because these guys, they went out there and they worked," he said. "They progressed. By the end of the season, they progressed to where we hoped they'd progress.
"Just look at all the guys we got plenty of quality reps. With those reps is going to come the progress you want. There is no substitute for playing in games, and we had a lot of young guys play in a lot of games. That experience is going to help us a lot in the future."