Will Rackley is getting the first inkling of what he missed.
And now, given a chance to look back, the Jaguars' second-year offensive guard said by missing last off-season, he missed a lot. No off-season conditioning program, or time with coaches. Little time to prepare.
While Rackley said he played through those circumstances – and while he said he improved and gained confidence throughout an unusual rookie season by NFL standards – he said he is looking forward to the coming months and next season for a simple reason.
He knows what to expect, and feels good about what he's expecting.
"When I'm here in Jacksonville, I'm by myself most of the time," Rackley said this week. "All I can do is be excited about the upcoming season, and I find ways every day I can get better."
Rackley said that's a big reason he's in Jacksonville more than a month before the official off-season program begins, working out at the team complex.
A third-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft from Lehigh University, Rackley said after starting 14 games as a rookie he took some time off. He went home shortly after the season, then traveled to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii in late January to watch Jaguars running backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Montell Owens.
He then returned to Jacksonville, the idea being to prepare for what he believes will be a second season of improvement.
"I just want to be focused for next season, and I'm definitely excited," he said.
That chance to focus in a controlled environment with coaching is something Rackley and other NFL rookies didn't have last year.
Rookies last year spent the off-season waiting for the lockout to end, and by the time it did, training camps were days away. Like most rookies, Rackley reported days into training camp. He missed the first day of practice while working out the details of his contract.
On the second day, he practiced – with the first-team offense.
"I was running plays I hadn't learned yet," he said. "We were at practice full-go running plays and I just had to make sure I did my homework before. I don't know if (the lockout) hurt me, but I know it definitely would have helped me (to have had more time to prepare).
"We pretty much had two weeks, and then we were playing a (preseason) game in New England."
Rackley worked with the starters through the preseason, and after missing a Week 3 loss to Carolina and not starting against Cincinnati two weeks later, he started the final 11 games of the season. While he said he began feeling comfortable about four or five games into the season, he said the entire season was a learning process.
"The biggest thing is actually settling down, trusting yourself and understanding the technique," Rackley said. "You know it's a faster game, so you want to react fast and a lot of times you overreact. I was doing a lot of that early on. I did it here and there, but that was a big thing, settling down and getting the technique down."
Rackley was asked what he meant by trusting himself.
"You have to have confidence in yourself," he said. "I could have gone out there and thought, 'I'm from a smaller school and going against an eight-year veteran,' but you have to have confidence in yourself that you know what you're doing.
"When you don't trust yourself, you can't go 100 percent. The guys in this league are so good that if you're one step behind you get beat."
There were times last season Rackley did get beat, and he said there were "definitely rough times." He moved from playing tackle at Lehigh to guard in the NFL, and said the position was "totally different" than what which he played collegiately.
"There are a lot of different things they don't teach in college, and there are things I learned here that my coach here didn't want me to do in college," Rackley said. "There's a whole new learning curve, and I had to get a grasp of that."
One factor he said wasn't as big as many observers believed was transitioning from a small college to the NFL. He said while he played against 270-pounders on the end in college, he now plays against 330-350 pounders who lineup closer to him, but he said that was more about the position switch than collegiate level.
"That's the big difference," Rackley said. "Some of those guys are still faster than the guys I played in college, but I like challenges. Any level you play on, you're going to see talent.
"It was a transition, but it wasn't too crazy."
He also said that after a season in the NFL, "I definitely see myself being a good player – a great player – at some point."
Rackley said to do that, he knows he must work and continue to develop. He said what may help him the most off the field is getting a chance to observe center Brad Meester in both areas. Rackley played next to Meester on the field, and with his locker next to Meester's in the locker room, Rackley said he learned about what it takes to be productive in the NFL.
"That guy's always in his book," Rackley said. "You'd assume by his 12th year, he knows it, but he studies like it's his first year."
Rackley, too, said experience will help on the field. Offensive line play is about continuity, and Rackley said he should not only improve individually in 2012, but as a teammate, too. He said he believes he will have better communication on the field with not only Meester, but left tackle Eugene Monroe, one more thing he said makes him excited about looking ahead to the months and season to come.
"I saw that throughout the season," Rackley said. "I became tighter with those guys and it leaked onto the field. We were on the same page more often. I have to know if their five technique does something, how Eugene will react, and I have to know the right way and react to my three technique.
"The big thing is just understanding the techniques, and understanding the goal of each play. I think that's going to be a big turnaround going into this coming season."