JACKSONVILLE – Luke Joeckel can tolerate a little heat – a lot, actually.
Not that temperatures in the high 80s Tuesday, temperatures that actually felt hotter, were pleasant. Not remotely. But considering what Joeckel has been through…
Considering his mental and physical state eight months ago …
Well, considering all of that – and considering how it ate at the second-year left tackle to not be doing what he so wanted to be doing last fall and winter – you're not going to hear the Jaguars' highest-drafted player complaining about the weather.
"It sure beats the hell out of sitting in the training room all day," Joeckel said this week during Jaguars 2014 organized team activities, which continued Thursday with the ninth of 10 planned OTA practices at the Florida Blue Health and Wellness Practice Fields.
"I don't mind sweating a little bit. I don't mind being out there at all."
If Joeckel's happy, the Jaguars are, too. Really happy. Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley has talked often this offseason about Joeckel's progress, how he has worked to rehabilitate the fractured ankle that kept him out the last 11 games last season, how he is continuing to show the athleticism and natural fit for the all-important left tackle position.
How gifted? How impressed are the Jaguars coaches with Joeckel?
Enough so that Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said when Jaguars coaches tell offensive linemen to go one way and "skill players" another, it's difficult to categorize Joeckel.
"He really should stay (with the skill players)," Fisch said, laughing.
Of the many Jaguars storylines this offseason, few outweigh Joeckel, his return, his progress. The No. 2 overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, he's a special talent with a potentially special future. He's also a player whose development is critical to the future of the offense, and the future of rookie quarterback Blake Bortles.
Consider cornerback, how an elite player there can take away a side of the field and free the rest of a defense. An elite left tackle can have a similar effect on an offense.
"When you can say (to a left tackle), 'The best pass rusher is going line up on you and we trust you can block him,' that enables you to start your protection turn with a guard," Fisch said. "It enables you to get your backs out (in pass patterns) quicker. It enables you to have more guys you have to defend because you're empty protections more.
"In the passing game, when you feel solid in the left tackle position, things are good."
Joeckel knows he's not there yet, but when talking about that topic – just how good he can be – he smiled about that, too. It's not that he's cocky. But you do get an impression this is a player very confident in his ability, and he said that confidence grew during his rookie season. It wasn't that he played perfectly, because he didn't. He struggled at times at right tackle in his first four games.
But he said he felt he improved in each of those four games, and his confidence grew the following week, too. That was the week he moved to the left side in the wake of the Jaguars trading left tackle Eugene Monroe to Baltimore. Joeckel played just 14 plays against St. Louis in Week 5 before his season-ending ankle injury, but the quantity of plays mattered far less than the quality.
"It felt so good to be back on that left side," he said. "I was way better on the left side than the right. Coming into the season knowing I'll be at left tackle, where I'm comfortable … I'm definitely confident about this season.
"It doesn't feel like my rookie season, even though I didn't play a lot of games. I'm excited to be out there."
Mostly, Joeckel said he's happy about how he feels, because for the first time in a while he feels great. And what makes it even better is he keeps feeling better.
Joeckel underwent surgery shortly after fracturing his ankle, and the time immediately after wasn't a time for smiles. Joeckel joked this week that although he loves his mother very much he may not have been the best son when Reecanne visited Jacksonville to help her son with the basic tasks (think: driving) a fractured ankle prevents.
"I hope I've made it up by now, but I wasn't always the nicest to my mom," he said. "I feel bad for that. She helped me out a ton, but there were moments I could have been a better man."
Fast forward eight months, and the mood couldn't be different. Joeckel wasn't sure early this offseason he would be ready for OTAs. He started doing two reps per period. He expects to be up to four next week, and by training camp, he said he expects to have no limits.
Not only is he getting more reps; each rep is getting better. He knew from the start power and explosion would be the last thing to return. That's not perfect yet. But it's close.
"I'm gaining confidence every single day," he said.
Saying that is phenomenally good to Joeckel. He hadn't been hurt since his sophomore year of high school, and while he didn't think the ankle was an injury that would affect him long-term, he said the time off did give him a renewed appreciation of the game.
"When you're hurt, you feel pretty crappy," he said. "You're not part of the team. You're coming up here and eating free meals. And you're not a teammate anymore. It's good to be back with the team."
Good enough that a little sweat won't come close to taking the smile away.