(This is the sixth of a series of stories to run this month on young Jaguars players who began developing in 2014 as the future of the franchise.)
JACKSONVILLE – Luke Bowanko realizes the reality.
The Jaguars' center said there are a couple of sides to that, with one being the reality that there are plenty of areas he needs to improve as he moves on from his rookie season.
The other side is that Bowanko emerged as a starter as a rookie, and that he not only began gaining the experience needed to play effectively in the NFL, he also showed himself he indeed belongs in professional football.
In a very real sense – in a long-term sense – that made his rookie season a success.
Figuring out how to grow from that success?
Bowanko said that's his next step.
"I know I have a ton of things to work on," said Bowanko, a sixth-round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft from the University of Virginia who started 14 games as a rookie. "But it definitely [went] well in terms of being able to contribute and have a positive impact on the team.
"I have a ton of work to do, but I know what I need to work on and I have a plan to figure it out."
If there's an offseason theme for a young Jaguars offense – and indeed for a slew of players on a strikingly young roster – that's it.
It is said a young NFL player makes his biggest strides between Year 1 and Year 2, and how six rookies who started extensively in 2014 develop will be key to the future of the Jaguars' offense.
That's a list that includes quarterback Blake Bortles and wide receivers Allen Hurns, Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee. It also includes guard Brandon Linder. It sort of includes second-year left tackle Luke Joeckel – who played sparingly as a rookie due to injury – as well as Denard Robinson, who last season in his second NFL season emerged as a starter for the first time at running back.
At the center – quite literally – of that offense is Bowanko, who said without question there are plenty of Year Two strides he must make.
Bowanko said one obvious area is strength. Team officials have consistently cited this as an area in which Joeckel needs to improve, but Bowanko said the same is true for him.
"The strength aspect is something I need to get better with," Bowanko (6-feet-6, 300 pounds) said, adding, "With how tall I am it's tough to keep leverage, so you have to make up for a little."
Bowanko said just as critical is improving mentally. The Jaguars this season allowed a franchise-record and league-leading 71 sacks, and while some of those sacks were about linemen getting beat one on one, many also came because of communication errors.
That's not unexpected with a young offensive line playing in front of a rookie quarterback, but Bowanko said without question communication and inexperience contribute to errors in pass protection. A center bears responsibility for recognition and line calls, an area Bowanko said he began to see improve by season's end.
"Already it's clicking more," Bowanko said. "At the beginning of the year it's, 'What's the snap count?' Then it's, 'What's the play?' Then it's, 'All right… I know the play. What are they doing?' By the end of the year, it becomes, 'All right, they're like this, so this is what we can expect. It's third-and-six, look for this.' So that kind of thing already has come around a little.
"Building on that will be important, and we should be able to pick it up that much faster."
In turn, Bowanko said he and Bortles should begin to "help each other out."
"If I can see something maybe Blake doesn't see because he's worried about other things, everything is so much better," Bowanko said. "We were both doing our rookie thing. It was mayhem sometimes, but it's part of the growing pains."
And while those pains were real at times this past season, Bowanko said the progress made was real – and should establish a foundation from which to grow.
"There's so much unknown coming out of college – you don't know," he said. "You know you can compete with the guys in the ACC. You get up here and stick your toes in the water and figure it out, so it's fun … A year ago if I would have said I was starting in the NFL ,it would have been an awesome thing, but now I'm here thinking, 'How do I get better in the NFL?'
"That's just mindboggling at first. But you move on. You grow to your competition level."