It is May 30, and Blaine Gabbert is smiling.
He is standing in the shade of EverBank Field shortly after the Jaguars' eighth organized team activities practice of 2012 Wednesday, and as the media gathers around him, the second-year quarterback teases them about not doing the interview in the sun.
Throughout the session, he is at ease. He laughs. He jokes. He talks about fundamentals. He talks about footwork.
He talks about the future, how the Jaguars will be better than many believe. At one point, he is asked about his approach with teammates, if it has changed from his rookie year to now.
"Coming in last year with no offseason, I really couldn't assert myself the way I wanted to," he says. "I was still learning. I was a fish out of water trying to swim upstream learning the offense in a short amount of time."
Listening to Gabbert Wednesday you get the same impression you get from watching him all offseason, from listening to teammates and coaches – that he is still learning, but the fish-out-of-water analogy? That no longer works.
This is his time. This is his team.
This isn't an editorial saying Gabbert is ready to be an elite quarterback. This isn't an editorial predicting the Jaguars' record. Here's what we're saying:
Gabbert's different now, in May 2012, than he was in January 2012, and different than at any time during his rookie season.
That rookie season? It was a struggle by any measure. During it, and after it, Gabbert was picked apart, kicked around, analyzed and criticized. He has been written off as a bust, and in the eyes of many analysts, he has been demoted to second team even before training camp begins.
That's what you year outside EverBank.
Inside, you hear about a player who is working hard, who is improving, who is grasping the footwork and fundamental changes. You hear about a guy who still has improving to do, and who still must prove himself on the field, but you hear about a guy who knows he is the starter, knows he is capable of becoming a franchise quarterback and who is willing to put in the work to do it.
Most days during OTAs, Gabbert is among the first in the building.
Most days during OTAs, he is among the last to leave.
He is acting like a leader, more assertive, and while Gabbert says he made no effort to act this way, it's the way a quarterback must act.
"It just comes natural," he says. "I wouldn't say I was not assertive last year or later on in the year. It's just it's a process that you go through learning the offense."
Head Coach Mike Mularkey last week spoke about Gabbert's progress. He talked with some detail about Gabbert's work to improve footwork, to shorten drops, to be better balanced. He spoke of working with Gabbert to not drop as deep, and Wednesday, Gabbert spoke openly about the same:
"We're trying to eliminate being back 10 yards because when you have elite pass rushers in the NFL you don't want to have to literally run up in the pocket so you don't get sandwiched."
I asked Gabbert if the changes in technique were difficult.
"No, not at all – we all have pretty nimble feet," he said laughing.
The response drew laughter from the media, too, and if it's not drop-dead funny stuff, that he is laughing and comfortable with the media these days isn't insignificant. This is a guy who has taken a lot of heat – some of it fair and some it not – but three months before the regular season, and six months into Mularkey's tenure, he has the look of a guy comfortable in his own skin, with a confident, calm outlook.
He has the look of a quarterback, and he sure doesn't have the feel of a player shattered by a difficult first-year experience.
Mularkey doesn't see a broken player, either. Mostly, he said last week, what he sees is a young player with a remarkable ability to grasp what players will tell you is a complex offense.
"You know that by when you call the play you step right in the huddle and call the play," Mularkey said. "I haven't been around a lot of quarterbacks the first time you introduce a brand new offense that can walk in the huddle and call the play with the impression that 'I know it so well that it's going to work' with that kind of mentality. That has been outstanding on his part."
Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, a locker-room leader, was among those players most supportive of Gabbert last season. This off-season, Knighton says Gabbert is a "different guy."
"He's taking charge on the field, from where I'm watching," Knighton said.
Knighton said Gabbert has been "strictly football" around EverBank.
"He'll joke and stuff like that once in a while," Knighton said, "but he's strictly business. Being a teammate, that's what you want to see from your quarterback."
That the Jaguars are seeing that doesn't mean Gabbert has secured anything. He will have to outperform Chad Henne in training camp, just as any player will have to outperform the other players at his position. But for now, there is little doubt that Gabbert is this team's starter, and there is little doubt that Gabbert is confident in what this team can be.
"We know we have talent," he says. "Everybody around the league says, 'They need to do this. They need to do that. We have great people here on this team and in this organization. End of story. We all believe that. We're just going to go out and prove it to people.
"We don't really care what everyone else says about it."
Gabbert didn't say those words casually Wednesday. He said them with conviction, with the authority of a leader. They were words he probably wouldn't have said last season, but he is confident now, no longer unsure of his role, or deferring to teammates. He is acting the way he must act, like a quarterback, one who can lead. This is his team. This is his time.
And while that guarantees nothing, as of May 30, that's good thing for the Jaguars to see.