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It's time for the tackles to tackle the expectations


There are three men on the defensive line who cannot escape the spotlight this summer. Perhaps it's because each man is 6-5 or taller and weighs more than 300 pounds, it is rather hard to hide when you're that large. In reality their contribution to the Jaguars defense is so critical that their production must match their stature and that makes them a large target.

I'm thinking about changing Larry Smith's name to IF. After all that's the first word you hear when players and coaches and fans are talking about the former Florida State star. If Larry Smith decides that football is important and If Larry Smith would play assignment football and If Larry Smith could avoid the minor pitfalls off the field then Larry Smith could be as good a defensive tackle as there is in the AFC. The 6-5 300 Smith is a man of enormous potential. The last time we saw that potential was in his rookie season when he played 15 games in reserve and notched 3 sacks. I'll never forget the afternoon scrimmage in Greenville, South Carolina that summer when he dominated a Falcon's offensive line that played in the Super Bowl. I haven't seen it since, yet Smith remains a man on whom the Jaguars are counting and waiting. They can't wait much longer. They need him to help maintain a run defense that was in the top ten when last season ended. Wasn't it Roger Whittaker who once crooned "I don't believe in IF anymore. If's an illusion."

Marcus Stroud didn't have to be a rookie sensation last year. That's not to say that Tom Coughlin wasn't looking for him to be; it's just not as critical when you have Seth Payne and Gary Walker playing the best football of their careers. The 6-6, 322 pound Stroud has the combination of size and athleticism that is rarely packaged together. Last week on the practice field he ran down Patrick Johnson on a reverse play, changing direction twice to corral the speedy receiver. Try to imagine a garbage truck chasing a motorcycle and having to change direction. The knock on Stroud is that his motor doesn't always run, that he's content to take a play off here and there, that he doesn't have a mean streak. Now this is a smart kid, a good kid and he knows what people have been saying about him. How would you feel if you had yet to start your first NFL game and it has already been decided you're a bust? Stroud has shown bursts of dominant play, followed by plays in which smaller men, less powerful men handle him. When he's playing at his best, no one man can handle the former first round pick. Think about what that means for Tony Brackens and Marco Coleman.

Or think about what it could be like to be a quarterback and know that four of your five offensive linemen are tied up with two defensive tackles. If you think Stroud is a handful wait until you see rookie John Henderson. There are not enough adjectives to describe his massive frame. If you're looking for some evidence of how dominant Henderson can be you need look only as far back as last season's game between Tennessee and Notre Dame. Henderson, playing on a bad ankle, destroyed the Irish offensive line single-handedly. There are no knocks on this year's first round pick. He's big, powerful, runs well and is the very model of a ‘character guy.' Henderson made the decision to bypass millions of dollars to stay at Tennessee and help the Volunteers make a run at a national championship. He could have stayed on the sideline and nursed his sore ankle, saving his body for the millions he would earn in professional football. Instead he gutted it out his entire senior season. The coaching staff is still working on getting him to play at a lower level instead of standing up and he does have to stay on top of those sore hamstrings. Those close to the situation say it has nothing to do with a back injury, instead that he has a curved back, swayback they call it. He's not missed a minute of training camp to date and if his stretching and conditioning program can keep him on the field all season long we could see one of game's rising stars on the defensive line.

Tom Coughlin should feel confident in his defensive line. Stroud, Henderson and Marco Coleman were first round picks and Tony Brackens and Larry Smith high second round choices. If Smith can realize his potential and should Stroud become the dominant player he has flashed on the practice field and when Henderson learns to play low the Jaguars will field the most talented and perhaps the most productive line in their brief history.

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