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Maurice Jones-Drew returns to practice


He almost certainly will play and won't start.

Somewhere in between is the number of carries running back Maurice Jones-Drew will get in the regular-season opener, but Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey said Monday afternoon it was too soon to know that number, exactly.

What Mularkey does know is this:

The NFL's leading rusher is back, and there's nothing wrong with that.

"It's good to have Maurice back in the mix," Mularkey said Monday as the Jaguars began early preparations for the 2012 regular-season opener against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday.

Jones-Drew, the NFL's leading rusher a year ago with a franchise-record 1,606 yards, reported to the Jaguars Sunday, ending a 38-day holdout. He practiced with the team Monday, getting about 10-to-15 snaps in a full-padded session, working in 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and team drills.

"I'm feeling fine," Jones-Drew said. "It felt great to get out there and run around with the guys and get hit a little bit. It's kind of good to get my legs back underneath me and get ready to roll."

Monday came a day after Jones-Drew met with running backs coach Sylvester Croom for about six hours Sunday, receiving a crash course in the new offense that Mularkey and the offensive coaches spent the offseason and preseason installing.

"Coach Croom hinted later in practice (Monday) I was getting quicker," Jones-Drew said. "All it is is trying to get a feel for things at the end of the day."

Mularkey said while Rashad Jennings will start against Minnesota he expects Jones-Drew – a Pro Bowl selection the past three seasons – to play. He said Jones-Drew likely will play on third downs, and get time on other series at times.

"He'll get some reps to give Rashad a blow," Mularkey said.

Mularkey said the number of carries Jones-Drew might get against the Vikings has not yet been discussed, and that he will know more about how physically ready Jones-Drew might be after a full-padded practice Wednesday.

That's the day the Jaguars will begin full-scale game-preparation for the opener.

Mularkey said Jones-Drew did an "assessment run" Sunday upon reporting, and that he looked good running sprints. Mularkey said he didn't see anything mentally in Jones-Drew that would slow his return, and said the time spent with Croom will be positive.

"Wednesday will be a good measure of where he is in pads," Mularkey said. "Wednesday practices are long and pretty physical."

Jones-Drew, who joked that he lost 10 pounds in practice Monday, said his primary focus will be getting accustomed to the cadence of the offense, and he said there are new blocking patters in the offense to which he must adjust. He also said the tempo is different in practice than in the past.

"I just want to be as fluent as I can in the offense," Jones-Drew said. "Today, I felt like I took strides from yesterday. I just want to keep going."

Teammates, meanwhile, welcomed Jones-Drew back Monday, with Jennings saying he was among the first players to hug Jones-Drew and give him "crap."

 "He's a great player – I'm glad to be on a team with him," Jennings said.

"It's exciting," offensive guard Eben Britton said. "The distractions are over – if there were any; I never even thought about it. It's great to have him back. We're excited to get going."

Center Brad Meester, a teammate of Jones-Drew's since 2006, said Jones-Drew's transition into the offense and into the team was immediate.

"I think people are looking for some huge distraction, but no, we're embracing him," Meester said. "He came in and we're ready to go with him. It's like he was never gone.

"We feel like he's always been here."

Said Jennings, "He's not a distraction to us. He's part of this team."

Meester also said it's hardly surprising that Jones-Drew would perform well physically, or that he would be ready to contribute in some capacity Sunday.

"He's been working his tail off," Meester said. "Knowing him, knowing the type of guy he is, I don't think he was sitting home. He was working hard. He's in great shape. He's ready to go."

Jones-Drew, for his part, said if he had his choice, he would play – "if I could carry the ball 80 times in a game, I'd carry 80 times in a game," he said – but said as of Monday, being back at practice, working, was what mattered.

"I want to do the best I can," he said. "If I'm ready, I'm going to play. If not, that's their choice. I'm just excited to be out there with the guys. Obviously, staying away was a choice, but it was very emotional. I've known most of these guys six or seven years, so to be away and be distant is tough. I'm just happy to be out there."

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