Donovin Darius has reported to the Jaguars' offseason conditioning program, and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala hopes he can maintain his current condition through a whole season.
Darius, who was fined by head coach Jack Del Rio for being absent from the Jaguars' recently-concluded mini-camp, is lifting weights and partaking in on-field conditioning exercises with his teammates this week. The veteran safety is expected to take part in the team's OTA's (organized team activities), which begin next Tuesday in the first of 14 on-field practices.
Another key Jaguars player, however, will not participate in spring drills. Star running back Fred Taylor will be on the sideline as he continues his recovery from knee surgery. The Jaguars steadfastly maintain Taylor's rehab is on-schedule and the running back should be ready to go for the start of training camp, but depth at the position would be welcome insurance and that's where Fuamatu-Ma'afala becomes a very important figure.
Fu is the one Jaguars back who has previously played that depth role. While with the Steelers, he was Jerome Bettis' backup, and Fu put his chronic hamstring problems behind him during an important five-game stretch late in the 2001 season.
With Bettis lost to a groin injury, Fu carried the load for the Steelers. He pounded out tough yardage and, more importantly, was able to avoid injury.
"They took me off special teams and I went the rest of the way," he said of the '01 season, when the Steelers lost Bettis with the division title and homefield advantage on the line. With Fu in the lineup, the Steelers got both.
Special teams have been the bane of his existence. All of his hamstring problems can be traced back to a punt return in his rookie season, 1998.
"I dived to hit the guy and my left hammie went out. That was the start of it. I think it was because the day before the game I got a massage," he said.
There had been no previous hamstring problems. They all began on that day at Vanderbilt University, in a game against the Titans in which Fu had broken loose for a 26-yard touchdown play on a screen pass.
He appeared to be a star in the making. Fu was the perfect Steelers running back; big, bruising and Bettis-like. He was Bettis' heir apparent.
The hamstring pulls, however, just kept coming; always the same hamstring, the left one. In 2003 the Steelers cut him and the Jaguars claimed him. Now, two years later, as the Jaguars cross their fingers through Taylor's rehab, Fu has never been more important to this team.
He's the guy who can do it. He's the guy who's done it, even if it was for just five games at the end of one season.
"My take on everything is I'm going to be a role player this year. I'm going to compete and hopefully I can slide into that spot," Fu said.
The role of backup to Taylor is the spot to which Fu was referring. Currently, he's number three on the depth chart, behind Taylor and LaBrandon Toefield.
"Before I go into every season, I think of that," Fu said of what his career might've been and still can be if the hamstring injuries hadn't occurred or would just stop. "I try not to look back too much."
He blames it on special teams. "I don't think I was made to sprint 70 yards," he said, referring to covering kicks with his short and heavy legs. "But there's no way around it if you're playing backup.
"I feel like I still have enough left in the tank; enough left in the legs. If opportunity comes, I'll be ready," he said.
In other news on Tuesday, the Jaguars signed rookie guard Julius Franklin and released undrafted offensive tackle L.V. Hill and tight end Neal Philpot. Franklin, 6-3, 316, was a four-year starter at offensive tackle at Bethune-Cookman. He auditioned for the Jaguars as a "workout player" at mini-camp.