They gathered at midfield, sun beating down and sticky heat all around.
Mike Mularkey stood among this group of Jaguars players Wednesday morning at the Florida Blue Health and Wellness practice fields. The final full-padded, morning practice of a difficult, high-intensity week was done. In a sense, the better part of 2012 Training Camp was, too.
"I just told them, 'the hard part is over,''' the first-year head coach told reporters moments later.
And make no mistake:
Two-a-days may not be what they were before new NFL rules shortened the sessions and the hours, but the past two and a half weeks around EverBank Field have indeed been difficult. More than that, they have been important.
Perhaps even more important than that, the players and coaching staff behaved as such. While the coaching staff had spent the offseason installing an offense and setting a tone, that was just a start. As safety Dawan Landry said Wednesday, a team doesn't become a team until pads come on, and in the last two and a half weeks, Landry said the beginning of an identity was established.
The Jaguars will be professional. They will be organized.
They will be physical. They will be tough.
"We got a lot accomplished," Landry said. "Coach Mularkey, he's instilled his philosophy and everybody has bought into the philosophy. We had a lot of hard, grinding days. It's gotten everybody better, from top to bottom, offensively and defensively."
That was particularly true this week.
Considering the good feeling of a 32-31 victory over the Giants in the preseason opener Friday, Landry said coaches could have slacked off a bit this week. Players could have, too. Human nature, Landry said, would have made that easy.
"You had to keep pushing," Landry said.
When the week began, Mularkey told the team the third and final week of camp was like the fourth quarter of a game. He laid this out clearly, told players what to expect and why. He said there would be days this week when they would be sore, when they would need to push through pain, fatigue. He explained, too, that there was a reason for this – that the only way to know what players would handle difficult situations was to see them in those situations.
"We got a lot of work done," Landry said. "Nobody's been complaining. That builds a team up. That shows you the kind of team you have. No quit. We're moving in the right direction."
Linebacker Paul Posluszny, a scab on his nose, said the week of full contact, full pads paid dividends on a very basic level.
"Coaches know who's willing to hit," Posluszny said. "They know they can count on certain guys to step up and be physical."
The week wasn't perfect. Mularkey said there are still too many penalties, and there were still dropped passes, but something else happened, too. On Tuesday, the Jaguars had what Mularkey said was the best drill of camp, a 9-on-7 drill with more intensity and enthusiasm than any drill in the last two weeks. On the same day, the wide receivers and quarterback Blaine Gabbert had perhaps their best day of training camp.
As two-a-days ended Wednesday, and as the team began preparing for the second preseason game Friday against New Orleans, players said something else was clear, too.
This team is better than it was two and a half weeks ago.
That's how it's supposed to be in training camp. Teams are supposed to improve. Some do and some don't, but around the Jaguars, the eye test says it's happening.
The Jaguars' offense looked better in a scrimmage two Fridays ago then they had before that. On Friday against the Giants, the offense looked better still, and there have been practices in recent days that appeared to be the best of training camp.
In this case, Uche Nwaneri said, the eye test is dead on.
"Our passing game has come along – it really has," Nwaneri said.
OTAs and the offseason were a learning curve, Nwaneri said. A new offense. New calls. New routes. New everything. In the two and a half weeks since the Jaguars gathered at EverBank, he said the improvement has been steady – perhaps not a direct line up, but if the line has been jagged it's trending in the right direction.
"One of the things that's happening now is there's a lot more confidence in our ability to out-scheme the defense -- as long as we play physical and smart," Nwaneri said. "We've had a lot of people who have been open. We've had clean running lanes. That's the difference between last season and this season. When we go into the passing game, it's not so much, 'I hope this guy can get separation.' It's, 'This guy will get separation at this point and we're going to get the ball to him.'
"As a line, it feels so good to be blocking, then see the ball 14 yards downfield. That just builds confidence in our team. If you can trust a quarterback like that, that's all the difference in the world."
Nwaneri said that difference started to be felt in the offseason, and that when the team gathered in late July, there was a good feeling. That feeling became flat-out optimism after Friday and now Nwaneri will tell you the energy and steady improvement is undeniable.
Another word for that energy and good feeling? Hope, and as the hard part of training camp came to an end Wednesday, there was more of that around EverBank than there has been in a while.