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Arrow pointing upward


Doug Johnson was drawn to the Jaguars for a couple of obvious reasons: It was a chance to go back "home," and the contract the Jaguars put on the table was better than what Buffalo and Chicago were offering.

Then there was this reason: "At this point in my career, I want to be somewhere where we can be real good, and this team can be. I expect us to take the next step," Johnson said during this mini-camp weekend.

What is that "next step" for a team coming off four consecutive losing seasons? Is the "next step" a winning season? Or will it be something more, such as a playoff berth or division title?

Johnson said the answers to those questions will be provided by the Jaguars' veteran players.

"The biggest thing here is the veteran guys, the vocal guys; they have to step up. That's going to be the biggest thing; the veteran guys stepping up and being leaders," Johnson said.

In this mini-camp, coach Jack Del Rio spoke of an improved chemistry, and there were clear signs of veteran players asserting their personalities more than they have in the past. Defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson are two obvious examples.

Almost everywhere you looked, there were players speaking with their body language, and when the Jaguars left the field following this morning's camp-ending practice, there was more bounce in this team's step than at any time since 1999.

Make no mistake about it, the Jaguars' arrow is pointing upward.

"It's in the back of our minds. It's one of our goals," safety Deon Grant said of playing in Super Bowl XXXIX, which Jacksonville will host.

If you're looking for a sobering splash of cold water in the face, Alltel Stadium was not the place to find it this weekend. This is a team that believes it is on the verge of something big and, quite frankly, there were examples this weekend that would support the "something big" theory.

• Byron Leftwich managed the offense with the look of a veteran. Del Rio repeatedly praised Leftwich's performance, and you might remember that during this weekend a year ago Leftwich struggled with fumbled snaps from center. There were no such fumbles this year.

• Jimmy Smith capped his "comeback" mini-camp this morning with two deep-ball catches against newly-acquired cornerback Juran Bolden. In last year's mini-camp, Smith was 20 pounds heavier and beat no one. "Jimmy looked pretty good. He really looks quick. It's noticeable. He's a full step faster, at least," Del Rio said.

• Last year's mini-camp was plagued by false starts and offsides. In the five practices this weekend, the Jaguars suffered one false start and two offsides.

• Bottom-of-the-roster depth has been improved 100 percent. A horribly thin linebacker corps in last year's mini-camp has become an ultra-competitive situation this year. Second-round pick Daryl Smith will be difficult to keep out of the lineup, and third-rounder Jorge Cordova has the quickness and natural pass-rush ability to force the creation of a position.

"I just expect more. We've been together for a year," star running back Fred Taylor said. "I expect more from Byron, more from myself, more from the coaches. The mistakes should be down because there aren't any more excuses."

But if you need that sobering splash, you could always focus on the field-goal game, which did not acquit itself well this weekend. Kickers Jeff Chandler and Josh Scobee were thrust into a one-kick, make-or-miss drama Del Rio used as a camp-ender this morning.

"Little pressure on the kicker," Del Rio said afterward of the mid-range attempts.

Scobee, the fifth-round draft choice from Louisiana Tech, pushed his kick well outside the right upright. Chandler, the Jacksonville native and former 49ers fourth-round pick, barely squeezed his kick inside the right upright.

In other news:

• Leftwich banged his right hand on Stroud's helmet as Leftwich attempted a pass, causing Leftwich an injured middle finger. X-rays were negative.

• Matt Cherry and David Richardson would seem to be the stars of the undrafted class. Cherry, a 6-1, 203-pound wide receiver from Akron, made several nifty catches and flashed some speed. Richardson, a 6-0, 202-pound cornerback from Cal-Poly SLO, made a most impressive breakup on a pass for Jimmy Redmond this morning.

• Grant played free safety and Deke Cooper was at Donovin Darius' strong safety position this weekend. "Coach told me to learn both of them, but they have me at free," Grant said.

• "We had five outstanding practices," Del Rio said.

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