Mike Sheppard knows well the opportunity at hand.
What Sheppard, entering his first season as the Jaguars&39; quarterbacks coach, said he doesn&39;t yet know is what no one around the team knows for certain – and that&39;s just when the team&39;s new, young quarterback actually will begin playing.
Yes, Blaine Gabbert was a Top 10 selection.
Yes, he eventually will start.
And yes, there&39;s a high level of interest in a player generally expected to be the future franchise quarterback.
But Sheppard said his job – and Gabbert&39;s job, too – isn&39;t to worry about such things. Not at first. The task for each, Sheppard said, is to get Gabbert as good as possible as quickly as possible.
For now, Sheppard said when it comes to Gabbert, that&39;s his sole concern.
"We&39;re lucky to have a guy – we have two," Sheppard said of the Jaguars&39; quarterback situation recently, several weeks after the team made Gabbert the No. 10 overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft.
"I know this staff has confidence in both of these guys. It&39;s like (Jaguars General Manager) Gene (Smith) has said, &39;It isn&39;t every day you get to hop up and take your first choice in the class at quarterback.&39;"
Gabbert (6-feet-5, 233 pounds), who played collegiately at the University of Missouri, started 26 of 31 games during the past two seasons. He completed 568 of 933 passes for 6,822 yards and 40 touchdowns with 18 interceptions at Missouri, and during his final collegiate season, he emerged as one of the top players entering the draft.
The Jaguars had said before the draft it was likely they would take a quarterback to develop behind starter David Garrard, then on draft night, they traded their 2011 second-round selection and the No. 16 overall selection to the Washington Redskins for the No 10 selection.
They immediately used the selection on Gabbert, and since then, fans and observers have wondered just when Gabbert will play.
"I don&39;t think as an organization we see it like that," Sheppard said. "We see it as a competition. That makes the position better and the best player wins."
Sheppard said the priority for Gabbert is acclimating him with the offense as quickly as possible.
"Your goal right away is to prepare him to play – flat-out, &39;here&39;s our system,&39;&39;&39; Sheppard said. "That&39;s why he had a (play)book the minute it was available for him to have a book. He&39;ll do a good job with that."
Sheppard said he has no doubt Gabbert will learn quickly, a belief that was enhanced by the quarterback&39;s appearance on a segment on NFL Network in which Gabbert broke down film and discussed offensive schemes with analysts and former NFL head coach Steve Mariucci and Christian Ponder, the No. 12 overall selection by the Minnesota Vikings.
"He basically is telling you what he&39;s about, that he&39;s a learner and he knows how to work,&39;&39; Sheppard said. "He&39;s going to come in and that won&39;t be why he&39;s behind. You could see him relate to those guys, his focus, and his ability to concentrate on what he&39;s doing. He was in it with them, and he&39;s smart, too."
Sheppard and Gabbert spent about an hour talking when Gabbert visited the Jaguars the day after his selection. During that conversation, they discussed a pre-draft article in the Sporting News in which Gabbert had talked about his desire to approach the NFL as a student of the game.
"I told him, &39;I was excited about you before, but when I saw that . . . you&39;re putting yourself out there as a guy who is going to come early and stay late and take people with you on the learning process," Sheppard said. "I said, &39;Now you have me. Now, that&39;s different. That&39;s good. That&39;s special.&39;
"When you put yourself out there and say, &39;This is me,&39; it better be you.&39;&39;
Sheppard said those conversations added depth to a picture he began forming before the draft of Gabbert as a quarterback.
"You have to have the first part, which is the ability," Sheppard said. "You can&39;t manufacture that. I personally have a set of critical factors that I feel are the most important, and I have a set of secondary factors that the more you have the better you are, the bigger the package."
Sheppard said the first set includes the ability to throw accurately, make decisions and perform physically and mentally.
"That&39;s the first part, but then there&39;s the second part – what&39;s his makeup, how&39;s he wired," Sheppard said. "What is his work ethic? The more geared in he is to being the best he can be the easier it is for me and him. I think he has that."
As to when those elements will mean playing time for Gabbert, Sheppard said it isn&39;t yet known. There will be competition at the quarterback position, Sheppard said, and there will be a process in which Gabbert will develop. That process will be observed and monitored and at some point, Gabbert will reach a point where it will be time to play.
When that will be has yet to be determined.
"You don&39;t want to use the cliché of, &39;Whoever walks in the door, we&39;ll coach,&39; but in a sense, that&39;s kind of how you are,&39;&39; Sheppard said. "Nobody walks in here and says, &39;We&39;ve got to play the young player.&39; It doesn&39;t work like that.&39;
"Nobody&39;s coming in here and saying, &39;Blaine needs to start the first game.&39; As an organization, I think we believe the competition will solve itself. We feel good about David. We feel good enough about Blaine and we feel good enough about Luke (McCown). Let the competition roll and play itself out. It starts off where it starts off. We&39;ll see."
And while there is a school of thought in the NFL that a quarterback must play and learn in live-game conditions, Sheppard said there also is learning that can be done in practice.
"There are only two measurements," Sheppard said. "The first one is how does he respond? That look in his eye – how does he look? Is he getting it or isn&39;t he? You can pretty much tell as a coach. The second thing is, &39;How does he perform? You can tell.&39;
"Usually, competition takes care of itself. At some point, somebody out plays somebody else and you know. It will play out. That&39;s the best way to say it."