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Early returns are good


Gene Smith surveyed the field as a father would watch over his sons. The rookies in Sunday's concluding practice of mini-camp are Smith's "kids."

They are his draft choices. There is nothing vicarious about his fascination with them. Simply put, Smith's career depends on them.

What do you see? Smith was asked by a reporter who shuffled alongside the Jaguars' director of college scouting.

"Watch the guy from Nebraska," Smith said, never taking his eyes off the field. "He's got something to him. The other defensive end, Davis, is showing quickness off the edge."

Smith was speaking of two undrafted free agents: defensive ends Benard Thomas of Nebraska and Jim Davis of Virginia Tech. Imagine that, two undrafted free agents were first out of Smith's mouth.

Matt Jones would've probably been that guy, had Jones not spent the final three practices of this mini-camp nursing a sore hamstring. Jones made his mark with three pass receptions in the first practice of mini-camp on Friday, then retreated to anonymity; as much anonymity as possible for a guy who, upon being drafted, instantly became the most popular Jaguars player since Mark Brunell upset the Denver Broncos in the 1996 playoffs.

"Pat Thomas has done a real good job at the point of attack against the run, and in his effort and speed on special teams," Smith said of his sixth-round pick.

It was the morning of the final day; the final practice of mini-camp. Five down, everything to go. It's just starting, folks. How will it end? Wouldn't every team love to know the answer?

The Jaguars are intent to make this season a triumphant return to the playoffs. They believe they have what it takes to make that happen. Their coach, Jack Del Rio, has already challenged himself and this team with that expectation. He did so on this day a week ago, as the Jaguars were putting the finishing touches to their eight-man draft class.

"I thought we were real close (to making the playoffs) last year and that we would make it last year. We should expect the next step with our quarterback developing. We should expect this team to take the next step," Del Rio said.

For the Jaguars to "take the next step," they will almost certainly have to get something in the way of a significant contribution out of this draft class. That's what made this weekend so important. It was a chance to get a feel for this draft class' potential for putting this team over the top.


"We have young, ascending players on this team who will take us to the next level," Smith said, but he didn't say when that would happen. Smith would only say that he likes what he sees.

"Matt Jones has outstanding hands, which has been evident in individual drills. You can see he has natural receiving skills," Smith volunteered, as he began ticking off first-impression reports on his draft picks, in order.

"Khalif Barnes is going to miss that time like Reggie Williams did. He'll have some catching up to do," Smith added, referring to nine on-field practice sessions Barnes will miss in May and June before his alma mater, Washington, conducts graduation ceremonies.

"Starks has shown he has legitimate man-coverage skills. He's sudden and he's highly competitive. Pearman had a good day on Saturday. Sensabaugh has some range. Owens has outstanding quickness. He really has a level of confidence as a punt-returner that you need to be able to field the ball with the leg these NFL punters have. Roberson is aggressive and fast," Smith said of his third through seventh-round picks.

But it's about more than just this draft class, Smith's third as Del Rio's and James Harris' lead college scout. This morning's field was littered with "kids" from Smith's first two rookie classes, too.

Byron Leftwich ran the offense impressively. Rashean Mathis was clearly the star of the weekend. He dominated at every turn. Vince Manuwai is a fixture at left guard, George Wrighster showed no lingering effects from back surgery, and Josh Scobee and Seth Marler promise to make the kicking competition one of the hottest positions of training camp.

Then there's last year's first-round pick, Reggie Williams, who used this mini-camp as a break-out moment in his young career. Williams dropped a pass in the first practice and dropped another on Sunday morning, but he caught everything in between and, more importantly, showed spring and bounce in his legs that he alarmingly lacked last season.

"Reggie is 12 pounds lighter. He's very prideful. He's developed as a route-runner. He's learned how to drop his weight into and out of his cuts. He's faster than people think he is," Smith said.

Meanwhile, last year's star rookie receiver, Ernest Wilford, gave no reason to believe he will shrink in the face of competition from Williams and Jones.

They will return to the field on May 17 for the first of 14 practices that will prepare the Jaguars for the start of training camp. Information will accumulate with each practice; questions will be answered. The early answers are promising.

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