In at least one sense, Jack Del Rio's seventh training camp as head coach of the Jaguars will remind him of his first, but nothing else about the 2009 Jaguars will compare to that '03 team.
"There's freshness in what we're doing, but I wouldn't compare it to my first year as head coach. We have an offensive system, we have a nucleus of players, we're more settled at the quarterback position," Del Rio told jaguars.com in a sit-down interview three days before his team is to report for the start of training camp.
It's on defense that Del Rio takes into his seventh camp a lot of the anxiety he felt in '03. It didn't take long to lay the foundation for what would be one of the NFL's best defenses, and Del Rio has no doubt the Jaguars will return to that level of play, but he can't deny that there are issues to be resolved on the defensive side of the ball this summer.
"We're open-minded in terms of battles in camp and in terms of new concepts and principles," he said. "The concerns are for bringing it all together and for the amount of work that has to be done. The encouraging thing I see is the commitment, starting with the linebackers."
The linebacking corps of Daryl Smith, Justin Durant and Clint Ingram was the star attraction of the spring. Durant settled in at middle linebacker, Smith moved to weakside linebacker and Ingram says his ankle is finally 100 percent and his movement in the spring supported that claim.
No problem at linebacker, but what about up front and in the back? There are concerns at each.
"I think (Sean Considine's) impact in the secondary will be favorable," Del Rio said, singling out an acquisition in free agency that appears to have filled a need at strong safety. "Is Brian Williams going to be able to hold off Derek Cox? Will Scotty Starks be able to come back (from ACL surgery)? It looks like Tyron Brackenridge is a find for us.
"Coach (Mel) Tucker has described it as a unit that needs to be scrappy," Del Rio said of his defense, as led by its new coordinator. "The biggest question for us is up front. We invested a lot in (Derrick) Harvey and (Quentin) Groves. We'll have to put them into position to do what we envisioned when we drafted them. Big John (Henderson) is central to everything. It's up to him. It's my hope he'll return to a Pro-Bowl level."
When Del Rio became head coach in 2003, he quickly saw that he had two roadblock defensive tackles, John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, around whom he could build his defense and his team's future. Six years later, Del Rio is looking for new building blocks.
"If we commit, who knows what can happen? We're going to expect to play good defense," Del Rio said.
At free safety, former first-round pick Reggie Nelson will attempt to recover from a so-so sophomore season. The Jaguars added competition at safety when they traded for Gerald Alexander in June.
Is Alexander destined to play free or strong safety?
"We'll find out," Del Rio said. "He'll line up at free on day one."
The offense is being counted on to shoulder the load while the defense resolves its issues. The Jaguars' hopes on offense start up front, where guards Vince Manuwai and Mo Williams return from a season lost to injury, and the Jaguars used their first two draft picks to select tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton.
Three draft picks were used on wide receivers and it would appear the way has been cleared for Mike Thomas, Jarett Dillard and Tiquan Underwood to establish themselves immediately.
"I'm confident they'll work at it. We've added some quickness we haven't had. In time, they'll separate themselves and allow us to determine the best way to utilize their abilities. Two of them (Thomas and Underwood) can fly, and the other one (Dillard) has good hands. We're going to be smart with Torry Holt, and Mike Walker had a real good camp," Del Rio said.
An improved offensive line and receiving corps should make for a better David Garrard in 2009. Del Rio agrees.
"I like David. I'm glad we have him. I think he's a fine young man and a fine football player. We want to get him back to what we saw in '07, but we must remember that what we saw in '07, that 6-1 (touchdown to interception) ratio, is rare. I think he's going to benefit from our offensive line. We want him to be the maestro. I see David having a big year for us," Del Rio added.
As the Jaguars close on the start of camp, Monroe heads a group of draft picks who remain unsigned. What are the prospects for getting Monroe under contract for the start of camp?
"I'm hopeful. Clearly, he can see the example from last year," Del Rio said, referring to Derrick Harvey having missed all of the 2008 camp. "We're going to be fair but we're not going to do something ridiculous."
When all of the pieces are in place, Del Rio will have in camp a team expected to represent one of the youngest rosters in the league this year.
"It really started at the Senior Bowl. It was a very refreshing time to have a room full of guys who were willing to soak up every bit of information they could. The young guys who are trying to make this team and the older guys who are trying to fend off that competition, through that we have a very eager team," Del Rio said.
It's a second beginning, of sorts, just not nearly as extreme.