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Building from the inside out

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Gene Smith didn&39;t doubt it then – and he sure doesn't now.

When the Jaguars selected little-known defensive tackle Tyson Alualu No. 10 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft, it may have been a controversial, unexpected decision to those outside the organization, but to Smith, it was something else entirely.

It was a safe, wise selection around which to build a defense.

A year later, Smith said that's still very true.

Alualu, who started all 16 games as a rookie, is far from the only reason Smith feels good about the direction and potential of the Jaguars&39; interior defensive front, but he&39;s as big a reason now as he was the day he was drafted.

Alualu is many things. Mostly, he is a guy to build around, Smith said.

"I think so," Smith said recently in an interview for this story on the Jaguars&39; defensive tackles, part of a position-by-position series running on jaguars.com.

"He can win one on one."

Smith said that trait is at the core of Alualu&39;s value to the line, the defense and the organization. He is a player who can win one-on-one battles against offensive linemen, and that makes him a player for which opponents must game plan.

That&39;s the first step to elite-level status, and while Smith said Alualu proved last season he possesses that quality, he also showed throughout 2010 he has the ability to be productive and reliable over an extended period.

He also showed the ability to handle adversity.

Alualu, who played collegiately at California, started 16 of 16 games as a rookie, playing through nagging issues to do so. He finished the season with 38 tackles and 3.5 sacks.

"When they (rookies) come into the NFL, it&39;s the longest season of their career," Smith said. "They go from their college season into the draft process, to the rookie mini-camp, to OTAs, to training camp, then into a season that&39;s twice as long as anything they&39;ve been a part of.

"The guys are bigger and faster, so when you&39;re playing in the trenches as a rookie, and starting 16 games, it&39;s a challenge."

Smith said Alualu&39;s experience doing so, and how he handled the situation, will help him in the coming seasons.

Alualu became just the ninth player in Jaguars history to start 16 games as a rookie, and he was seventh overall in sacks among NFL rookies.

"Having gone through that experience is only going to make him more mentally tough – not that he wasn&39;t already," Smith said. "He&39;s quite the competitor. He played through a lot. He played through a lot of things that maybe some guys would not have. He has that warrior-type mentality. He has a big pride factor – a tremendous amount of pride."

Smith said the future of the Jaguars' defensive tackle position is far more than Alualu. Rather, it is a position at which the Jaguars are deep and young with a chance to improve into a foundation of the defense.

"We feel like we have a quality group there," Smith said. "They&39;re a very competitive group, and it&39;s a lot like running back where this is some depth and there&39;s going to be some competition."

Terrence Knighton, a third-year veteran from Temple, played at a high level through much of last season, starting 16 games for the second time in as many seasons.

Knighton finished the season fifth among AFC defensive tackles with four sacks. He also had 23 quarterback pressures, 84 tackles, six tackles for loss and four passes defensed.

 "He's certainly a guy who can play the one technique and dominate against the run," Smith said. "He did improve some as a pass rusher (last season), but that's an area that can be improved upon."

Smith said the Jaguars overall are a young group on the interior of the defense with potential to improve rapidly – and eventually to reach a high level. The team finished 28thin the NFL last season in total defense, and 22ndagainst the run with 121.6 yards per game rushing allowed, and continued improvement on the interior will be key next season.

The potential for such improvement is there – even beyond Alualu and Knighton, Smith said.

Nate Collins, who signed as a free agent shortly after the 2010 NFL Draft, played one game, and fourth-year veteran Leger Douzable played in 15 games as a reserve. The Jaguars also like D'Anthony Smith, a third-round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft who missed last season with an Achilles injury. Smith showed potential to be a key member of the Jaguars' interior line rotation before the injury, showing speed and athleticism during workouts last off-season.

D'Anthony Smith before the lockout said he was progressing well since the injury and that he was about a month and a half from being 100 percent in terms of football shape. He expected to be ready for training camp. If he is, the Jaguars have solid competition at the position, and potentially an elite-level front-line three-some in Alualu, Knighton and Smith.

"We're going to play the best players in the best situations," Smith said. "I'm confident that whoever our best pass rushers will be, they'll get the snaps in tough situations."

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