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Open Locker Room: WR Ace Sanders excited for return


JACKSONVILLE – Ace Sanders has waited for this moment.

On Wednesday, it arrived. And if all goes well, a bigger moment will arrive Sunday when the Jaguars return to EverBank Field.

Sanders, a second-year veteran, on Sunday is expected to play for the first time this season when the Jaguars play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The wide receiver/punt returner spent the first four regular-season games on a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

"I'm very excited," Sanders said as the Jaguars (0-4) prepared to play host to the Steelers (2-2) at Everbank Field Sunday at 1 p.m. "I just want to come in and get back into the flow of things. I really just want to see where that takes us as a team, as a teammate, and go from there.

"It's nothing really too big that they put on me, just to come back and get in the swing of things."

Sanders on Monday was cleared to participate in all team-related activities. He had been allowed to attend meetings and be around the team, but could not play or practice the past four weeks.

Sanders on Wednesday is expected to practice with the team for the first time since the final week of the preseason, when he practiced and played in the team's final preseason game.

"He has been in meetings and in the playbook and asking questions the whole time," Jaguars wide receiver Cecil Shorts III said. "So, he has been involved. … I feel like he's more mature. I think this kind of opened his eyes a little and he learned from his mistakes. I'm excited to see him grow as a person off the field."

With Shorts III expected to be out with a hamstring injury, and with wide receiver Marqise Lee on Wednesday being ruled out for Sunday also with a hamstring injury, the Jaguars have four healthy wide receivers other than Sanders: rookies Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson, Mike Brown and Tavarres King.

"Ace will have to find a way to be ready to go," Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said. "He'll play some plays and we're excited to get him back, obviously."

Hurns and Robinson likely will start, with Sanders potentially playing as the third receiver.

"There will be some natural rust, and not only that, you have to feel the game a little," Fisch said. "We have to remember Ace only played 15 games last year. He was a rookie player. This is his first game back, so there's going to be some rust. We have to see what we can do to get him going early."

Sanders, who caught 51 passes for 484 yards and a touchdown last season as a rookie, said he does not feel behind after the layoff.

"I was still able to do meetings, so I was able to keep up with that's going on," Sanders said, adding that he was able to work out and condition.

The Jaguars have a roster exemption available for Sanders through Monday, meaning the roster now is at 54 players. The team must decide by Saturday at 4 p.m. if Sanders will play against the Steelers.

Sanders also said watching the past four weeks was difficult.

"It was tough at times, but it was only yourself that you could blame for the reason you were out, so you couldn't just harp on it too much," Sanders said. "You just had to look at the positive stuff."

Sanders also likely will resume his punt return role if active, and he said is "without a doubt" in a better state of mind than before the suspension. The suspension was announced shortly before training camp in late July, and while Sanders could have participated in training camp and preseason, he spent much of that time away from the team dealing with the issues that led to the suspension.

Sanders played in the preseason finale against Atlanta at EverBank Field before the suspension began.

"I came back and didn't have too many days to get back in the swing of things," Sanders said. "Just to get out there and accomplish the things I did accomplish, two or three plays – just to bring the excitement back to the sideline … that was the big thing I could look at."

Also around the Jaguars Wednesday:

*Rookie quarterback Blake Bortles said while there are plays in the game plan designed to throw downfield this week it hasn't been an emphasis early in the week. Bortles completed 29 of 37 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions in his first NFL start Sunday, but didn't throw downfield as much as he had in previous appearances. "We definitely have some stuff in, like we do every week, trying to move the ball downfield," Bortles said. "There were opportunities there I missed. There were different examples of things you could see and you could learn from of where I should have gone with the ball." …

*Second-year safety Josh Evans, who returned to the starting free safety role last week ahead of third-year veteran Winston Guy, on Wednesday expressed surprise at Guy's release. The Jaguars on Monday released Guy after he had struggled in pass coverage recently, having allowed a long touchdown pass to San Diego Chargers wide receiver Eddie Royal Sunday on his only defensive snap. "It was surprising," Evans said. "I don't think anybody in the secondary was expecting that, but I think we all understand this profession. That can happen to anybody. But it was shocking." …

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