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Jaguars summer begins


Player participation is at 100 percent, the rules have been tightened a bit, and the Jaguars are intent on halting their four-year losing streak.

That's how training camp began for the Jaguars this morning. The first practice of camp wasn't very intense, but the Jaguars' attitudes are.

"I'm ready to put everything on these shoulders. I have to play better. In order for a football team to be good, the quarterback has to play well. I do have to play better than I did last year," Byron Leftwich told reporters following this morning's practice at the Jaguars' Alltel Stadium practice facility.

A light rain cooled the final half hour of a practice that was more along the lines of a spring drill than it was a training camp opener. No pads, no Oklahoma drill, but a lot of enthusiasm.

Coach Jack Del Rio explained that the league requested that its teams ease into training camp by keeping the pads off for a couple of days. The Jaguars will put the pads on for the first time on Monday evening.

"That's probably the easiest practice I've ever been to," running back Fred Taylor said with a sheepish grin.

Del Rio's grin was for the fact he had his complete roster on the field for the start of this camp, which was not the case last summer when Del Rio was the Jaguars' rookie head coach. Leftwich, the Jaguars' first-round pick a year ago, was a holdout for nearly the whole training camp.

"It was a great way to start our season, to have everyone here," Del Rio said of this morning's practice, which included first-round draft choice Reggie Williams, who agreed to a contract yesterday afternoon. "I think it was Reggie's determination to get here. So, we didn't come in with any distractions," Del Rio added.

Yeah, the Jaguars are off to a great start, but to what will it lead? Expectations for this team are high. Some have gone so far as to predict the Jaguars will represent the AFC in February's Super Bowl game, which will be played in Alltel Stadium.

"I want to go to a Pro Bowl in my rookie year and team-wise I want to go to the Super Bowl," Williams said.

How's that for expectations?

The Jaguars are not shrinking in the face of their new-found celebrity. Though they're scheduled for only one prime-time game this season, the Jaguars have become one of the league's high-profile teams. The Jaguars, of course, will be the subject of an intense NFL Films documentary – Inside Training Camp: Jaguars Summer – that will appear on NFL Network, beginning on Aug. 11.

"I can see it," Leftwich said when asked why he believes the Jaguars will be a better team this season. "Just having better players around; you just look at our roster. We're deep everywhere. When you see that and you're out there, you have no choice but to think you're a better football team."

Del Rio will take some steps this summer to ensure that his players will be better-behaved. Bed-check, which was not included in last year's regimen, is set for 11 p.m.

"A couple of guys took advantage," Taylor said of last year's more liberal policy. "It's a new year. You'd have to be pretty stupid not to be in your room when they come."

"I've basically tightened down things I thought I should; little things where I thought I could tighten the screws, I have," Del Rio said.

Taylor is the team's brightest star and his first-day comments indicated he's expecting even more from himself this season than he produced a year ago, when Taylor rushed for a career-high 1,572 yards. The bulk of that yardage came in the second half of the season, when Taylor played the best football of his life.

"We found our identity," he said of the final eight games of last season, when the Jaguars won four times following a 1-7 start. More importantly, the Jaguars developed a run-the-ball/stop-the-run personality that allowed the team to carry its head high into the offseason.

"Early on, we were just trying to find things that work. It took that amount of time to find our niche. For me, personally, in my entire career I don't think I've ever started fast. This year, my goal is to start fast," Taylor said.

Del Rio spoke to his team Friday night about the importance of a fast start. The Jaguars were buried by an 0-4 start last season.

"The pain of starting bad last year got everyone's attention. They understand what we're looking for as a staff and the commitment it's going to take. I think they understand just how much work we have to do," Del Rio said.

"We played from behind far too much last year. The two games we led at the end of the first quarter we won. The four in which we were tied at the end of the first quarter we split," he added.

The intent this season is that a fast start will put the Jaguars into AFC South Division title contention. "Why not us?" Leftwich asked.

"We just have to make the playoffs. One step at a time. Like Jack says, 'Every play, every day,'" guard Chris Naeole said.

The player who would seem to offer the greatest impetus to a fast start is veteran wide receiver Jimmy Smith, who missed the first four games of last season due to a drug suspension. Smith would seem to have revitalized his career in this offseason. He dropped his weight to just under 200 pounds, which has allowed him to recover the speed he lost last year when his weight ballooned to 221 pounds.

In this morning's practice, Smith made a leaping catch along the sideline, and he was smooth and graceful in all of his routes and catches. He remains the team's fastest receiver, even though he's 35 and in his 12th NFL season.

"When I first got here in '95, I wanted to play a couple of years, put away some money and then move on to something else. Now, I don't even think about it. I'm just having fun," said Smith, whose contract runs through 2006.

Smith is the last of the inaugural-season (1995) Jaguars.

"I look at it as an accomplishment. I've outlasted the Boselli's and the Brunell's, guys you thought were going to be here forever," Smith said.

As far as expectations are concerned, Smith may have hit the high note today when he said: "A lot of talent; I think just as much talent as we had in '99." The Jaguars had the best record in the league in '99, 14-2.

Smith added, however, that he'd prefer less attention from the preseason prognosticators. "I've always believed it's better for us when the expectations aren't as high," he said.

That's impossible, now. Training camp has begun, NFL Films' cameras are rolling and the Jaguars' "fame" is only likely to grow.

"No pressure; hype is hype," Taylor said. "We have to start fast, finish strong. That'll be our motto this year."

That would work.

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