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First mini-camp practice makes it official

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It was a mini-camp practice that erased any doubt; this is a year of major change in the young history of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

On the field, effort exceeded execution and pass attempts found the grass more often than they found their intended receivers' hands. It was not a Jaguars-like practice of the past, with veteran stars easing through drills they could perform in their sleep. On this morning, wide-eyed rookies and desperate, veteran journeymen felt their way through a practice so they might repair to the locker room and take another look at the playbook.

"I like the enthusiasm. I like the attitude. It wasn't very smooth," coach Tom Coughlin said of the practice, the Jaguars' first of five mini-camp workouts this weekend at the team's Alltel Stadium practice facility.

This morning's workout was the unveiling of a football team that is clearly in reconstruction. Keenan McCardell and Hardy Nickerson weren't present, though they remain on the roster; they'll each be released after June 1. Tony Boselli, Gary Walker, Seth Payne, Renaldo Wynn, Kevin Hardy, Aaron Beasley, Jonathan Quinn and Mike Hollis have all departed. They've been replaced by rookies such as Mike Pearson, John Henderson, Clenton Ballard, Akin Ayodele, David Garrard and Hayden Epstein.

Nothing symbolized this day of change more dramatically than the sight of Garrard sitting at Boselli's former locker stall, Garrard's eyes fixed on a playbook that made Friday morning's drills an exercise in confusion.

"I know it's going to take some time, but I know I'll (understand it)," Garrard said, humbly, just five days after being selected by the Jaguars in the fourth round of the NFL draft and boldly predicting he would have no difficulty assuming the backup role to starting quarterback Mark Brunell. Today, Garrard wasn't as brash in his comments to reporters.

"It came from always being the starter, always being the guy. I wanted to come across as confident, to make people feel (I) can do the job," Garrard explained. "I'm not going to get overwhelmed. It's an overwhelming feeling, but I'm going to take it in stride."

Even though it's just mini-camp, and rookies are granted the luxury of these three days to acquaint themselves with the pro game, Garrard is facing somewhat of a watershed weekend. If he turns in an especially impressive performance in mini-camp, Coughlin may decide to not sign a veteran backup quarterback. If Garrard plays as would be expected of a rookie, Coughlin is likely to bring in a veteran backup.

"We'll have enough talent on the field to be competitive, but we've got to stay healthy," Brunell said in a first-day assessment of the Jaguars' situation.

This was an especially difficult day for Brunell, one of two remaining stars from the Jaguars' 1995 inaugural-season team. Jimmy Smith is the other star-quality Jaguars player who has been with the team every year since '95.

One of the big questions Brunell will face in the preseason is his dedication to the rebuilding project the Jaguars are undergoing. At this stage of his career, will Brunell be able to commit himself as completely to the 2002 team as he did to the '95 group, when Brunell was attempting to establish himself as a starting quarterback?

"If I don't put my heart into it, I'll be the next guy on the bus. If my heart's not in it, we don't have a chance," Brunell said.

Another player who faces a burning question is running back Fred Taylor, who is being challenged to remain healthy through a full season, following a year in which Taylor was sidelined for the final 14 games due to a severe tear of his groin muscle.

"Nobody has the answer on how to stay healthy," Taylor said. "I've been running for about a month-and-a-half. I'm still trying to find my fifth gear. I could play the way you saw me today. I have to learn how to play not 100 percent."

Taylor gave his penchant for injury considerable thought during the offseason, and came to the conclusion he has to be a smarter runner. "If I get nicked up, don't take on 3-4 people. In the past, I would stay up trying to get an extra yard and I'd get hit. You have to be smart enough to know when to run out of bounds. Save yourself for the next play and the next play," Taylor said.

Tony Brackens, Donovin Darius, T.J. Slaughter and Maurice Williams are the only players who weren't full speed in the morning practice. Brackens (knee), Darius (shoulder) and Slaughter (shoulder) were limited by offseason surgeries, and Williams had recently strained a calf muscle.

Coughlin addressed his complete team for the first time Thursday. "I talked about a time of change. It's a time of change in our country following 9-11, it's a time of change in the NFL with the new divisions, and it's a time of change with our football team," Coughlin said.

If you didn't believe the coach, all you had to do was look around.

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