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Brunell not giving up


Mark Brunell understood the line of questioning. He didn't dispute the suggestion that he's in a tough spot.

"I think we're all in a tough spot. For four games we've lost one of our best players," Brunell said of Jimmy Smith's drug suspension for the first four games of the regular season. "It's not going to be easy, but we can do it."

Yes, the Jaguars as a whole find themselves facing an uphill struggle. They are a team in the midst of change that will play three of its first four games on the road. Certainly, these are not the circumstances under which rookie head coach Jack Del Rio wants to begin his career.

But the circumstances would seem to weigh heaviest on Brunell, the only true starting quarterback this franchise has ever known. Brunell is set to begin his ninth season as the Jaguars' starting quarterback, but in what is expected to be his final season in Jacksonville, Brunell may have to battle against fan sentiment for first-round draft pick Byron Leftwich.

"That was pretty much the situation before Jimmy. But to think of those things is counter-productive," Brunell said, referring to the excitement Leftwich caused this past Friday night when he entered the game with 9:31 to play and rallied the Jaguars to a 27-23 win over Miami.

With Leftwich's 17-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Donald Hayes, "Byronmania" was born.

"It's different; wrestling with this," said Brunell, who has never previously faced the circumstances of a first-round pick pushing him for his job. "It's a new challenge."

And he'll face it without his favorite receiver.

"These are things I can't control. But I can control how I play. I'm just going to give it my best. I'm going to play as hard as I can for this team," Brunell said. "Four games will go quick. There will be 12 games after that."

If all goes as planned, Smith's suspension will expire with the Sept. 28 game in Houston. He would be eligible for the Oct. 5 contest against visiting San Diego. But how do the Jaguars manage to "stay alive" until then?

"Everybody has to take their game up a little more; myself, Fred (Taylor), our offensive line. We've battled through worse and won a lot of games around here," Brunell said.

And will Smith be ready to go when his suspension ends?

"I think he can do it. I think he's committed to that. Jimmy will stay in shape," Brunell added.

Smith revealed his drug suspension to teammates Saturday afternoon. His teammates were shocked by the news.

"It was hard for Jimmy to get up in front of his teammates and say what he said. He did the right thing. He stood up like a man and said what he had to say," Brunell said.

Smith was accused of drug usage by the police two years ago, after he was arrested for a traffic violation. He claimed the test result was a false positive and maintained his innocence to the team and his teammates.

"I don't feel deceived. People go through tough times in their lives. This is his. I don't feel deceived or let down. I feel for Jimmy," Brunell said. "What's most important is Jimmy; Jimmy getting through this. (He'll) make it. This will pass."

Meanwhile, the Jaguars returned to practice this morning with a spirited workout that included the return of defensive end Tony Brackens. It was Brackens' first practice in pads in this training camp, though his participation this morning was limited.

Del Rio plans to work Brackens in "responsibly. He's been cleared (medically). He's practicing and we'll continue to increase his reps," Del Rio added.

Of course, it remains to be seen if Brackens' surgically-repaired left knee will allow him to progress quickly enough to be ready for the start of the regular season.

Running back Fred Taylor remained sidelined by his knee "bone bruise," but Del Rio said Taylor is expected to make it back to practice some time this week. That could clear him to play in Saturday's preseason game in Tampa.

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