Khalif Barnes got his degree in criminal justice this spring. Now he's pursuing a professional football diploma.
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio wouldn't concede that, in Barnes' case, the NFL's graduation policy actually worked, but Del Rio agreed that it says something about Barnes that he used his time effectively.
"He's intelligent. That's definitely one of his strengths," Del Rio said of Barnes, the Jaguars' second-round draft pick and a player who will compete with Mike Pearson this summer for the starting left offensive tackle job.
Barnes practiced with the Jaguars on Tuesday for the first time since the post-draft mini-camp. NFL rules forbid rookies to practice with their teams in OTA's (organized team activities) until after their colleges conduct graduation ceremonies. The University of Washington awarded diplomas this past Saturday and Barnes was a recipient, though he chose not to attend the actual ceremony.
"I didn't need to do that. That's not a big deal," he said.
Barnes arrived in Jacksonville on Sunday and readied himself for a crash course in NFL offensive line play. With Pearson out of OTA's while he recovers from knee reconstruction, Barnes is a major player in the Jaguars' plans for 2005.
Del Rio, by the way, still dislikes the NFL policy on graduation. He said he would've made sure Barnes got his diploma and the coaching he needs to begin his career in the NFL.
Well, all of that is behind Barnes now. He's a college grad. He's practicing with the Jaguars. Nothing is holding him back and Barnes is charging forward.
"I was thrown into the fire in college. Throw me into the fire," he said when asked about the pace at which he would prefer to learn the Jaguars' blocking schemes.
Does he think he can play right away in his rookie year?
"I think I can. Why not? They drafted me for a reason. If I didn't, I wouldn't want to get down here as fast as I can," he said. "This time is valuable because I get to learn the plays. I like to know 100 percent of what I'm doing."
The Jaguars were thought to have come away with one of the steals of the draft when they got Barnes in the second round. He was thought to be a prospect to be drafted by the Jaguars late in the first round.
"It's tough for anybody to miss time, but he recognizes how important it is to come in here and compete. Mike Pearson has been challenged the last two years and at the end of camp he had won the job, so I know Mike isn't going to back down," Del Rio said.
Barnes split time at left tackle with veteran Ephraim Salaam in Tuesday morning's practice. Though he may have struggled with unfamiliarity, Barnes had no trouble moving with grace. "He's very athletic," Del Rio said.
"His head was swimming a little bit; who to block, how to block. He has his athletic ability to use," offensive line coach Paul Boudreau said.
Though all eyes were on Barnes, it was impossible not to notice quarterback Byron Leftwich, who turned in one of the most impressive practices of his Jaguars career. Leftwich hit Jimmy Smith in stride on a couple of long passes, had a perfect deep strike dropped by Cortez Hankton, and was generally on target and tight with everything he threw.
It may have been the offense's best practice of the spring.
Star running back Fred Taylor remained a non-participant as he recovers from offseason knee surgery. Del Rio said there was nothing new to report on Taylor's rehab. Taylor is running.
"From everything I hear he's right on schedule. I assure you, I give you as accurate a picture as I can," Del Rio said.
First-round pick Matt Jones was a full participant. He did not show any effects of the hamstring injury that had caused him to miss previous practices.
Four practices remain; two more this week and two next week. Then it's break time before the start of training camp on July 29.
"You have to go back and re-define yourself every year. You don't want to take for granted you're going to be stout against the run. We not only want to condition our bodies, we want to condition our minds," Del Rio said.