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Jaguars rookies prepare for long, pressurized wait


Kevin Elliott doesn't bother pretending.

The Jaguars' rookie free agent wide receiver completely understands the inevitable questions that come this week.

Is the week different? Is the pressure he felt the last four months – the same pressure any rookie free agent feels with any NFL team – building? And is this week pretty much unlike any week he has faced since . . . since, well, ever?

Well, yeah.

"There's definitely a lot of tension," Elliott said.

How's this for tension? Guys in your situation are not only gone now, but the temporary lockers installed for extra rookies and bubble players in the state-of-the-art locker room at EverBank Field are gone, too.  The roster is shorter, practice is cozier, and a preseason that once featured four opportunities has dwindled to one final game.

Those are just some of the signs of cutdown week, which began this past weekend with 15 roster moves to get the Jaguars' roster to 75 players, and which will continue Friday with the final, 22-player cutdown to the regular-season roster.

For a player such as Elliott, and for players such as Julian Stanford, Joshua Jones and others, that's the ultimate goal – making that regular-season roster.

Of course, the ultimate disappointment is a possibility, too.

"It's the last preseason game," Stanford said as the Jaguars (2-1 in the preseason) prepared to play host to the Atlanta Falcons (1-2) in the preseason finale at EverBank Field Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

"Everybody knows what's coming up."

Before Friday happens, there's Thursday night's game, which Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey said this week will be more about evaluating players lower on the depth chart.

The starters are expected to play about 10-to-12 plays, depending on the outcome of early drives, but pretty much from the start of the second quarter on, players trying to make the roster will play extensively.

Mularkey said Monday that means players such as Elliott, as well as defensive tackle Jeris Pendleton. Rookie undrafted center Mike Brewster appears likely to make the regular-season roster after an injury ended backup John Estes' season, but for a linebacking corps that includes free agent rookies such as Stanford, J.K. Schaffer and Joshua Jones, the coming days are less certain.

Those days are the culmination of a long process that began in April, shortly after the draft. Some players start fast and impress coaches throughout organized team activities and training camp, and others – such as Jones – perhaps peak later.

Mularkey on Monday recalled a recent day when he told the team that time was running short, and there were a limited number of practices in which young players could make an impression. Mularkey is the sort of coach not to waste words, and to hear him tell it, the words weren't wasted on Jones.

"He looks like Forrest Gump in some of the drills because is going at a different speed than a lot of guys," Mularkey said. "He got it. What he does in the game, his production will make a difference, but he definitely has taken a step forward."

Jones said Mularkey's words indeed made an impression.

"Just knowing time was ticking away – preseason only lasts so long," said Jones, who originally signed as a tryout player before a post-draft minicamp. "It kind of sparked me. I said, 'I have to get going. I have an opportunity most people don't have. If I don't maximize my potential, I'm a fool for wasting that chance.' I felt like I was going 100 percent before, but maybe I'm going 110 now. I'm pushing myself to the maximum."

Will that push be enough? No player knows for certain until Friday, and that makes Thursday's game a pressurized one. Russell Allen, a veteran linebacker who made the Jaguars as an undrafted rookie in 2009, recalled the final preseason game that season as "an interesting balancing act."

"Obviously have to get yourself up for it," he said. "It's the most important game you've ever played in your life, but at the same time, you have to be able to keep it in perspective. You have to kind of keep your cool, and not waste energy by getting too excited and too nervous.

"It's tough. Ultimately, you have to go play."

Coaches will tell you a rookie in that situation must trust he has done the work, that the overall body of work the player has put in must stand for itself. It's a fine idea in theory, Allen said.

 "It's easy for you and I to say that," Allen said, laughing, "but when it's you, every play seems like life and death. Definitely, that's the case, but for them, it feels like do or die."

Allen said if anything is more difficult than Thursday, it's the long wait afterward. In 2009, the Jaguars played the Redskins in the preseason finale. Allen had family in town, the Jaguars won and Allen believed be had played well. As is turned out, he long had impressed coaches and pretty much had solidified a spot.

"I didn't know that," he said.

So, what Allen did Friday was wait for a call. In this case, it's a call you don't want – one telling you it's come to the stadium for exit interviews.

"Your friends call wanting to know what's going on, and you're like, 'Don't call me,'' Allen said. "It's a long (day). No doubt."

For Elliott, Jones, Stanford and others, their version of that day comes Friday. By then, their work will be done, and the long day of waiting will begin.

And none will bother pretending there's no tension.

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