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Rookies shine for Jaguars


More than half of the Jaguars roster is new in 2009, 28 players to be exact, led by an NFL-high 13 rookies. The Jaguars selected nine players in the draft, added two undrafted free agents and signed two rookies early in the season that were drafted by other teams.

General manager Gene Smith, in his first season at the helm, has watched his inaugural class make a strong impact on the club through nine weeks. All nine of the draft picks are on the active roster and rookies have made a combined 32 starts this season. Since the third week, at least 10 of the 13 rookies have been active on game day including 12 of 13 last Sunday against Kansas City.

"The real positive is that those players have earned their opportunities to perform by working hard and having the eagerness to learn from our coaching staff, and I'm proud of the way they've taken advantage of their live game opportunities," Smith said. "Jack (Del Rio) and our coaching staff have shown the willingness to develop and play deserving young guys and I'm grateful for that, because I know it will impact us down the stretch this season."

The Jaguars started a franchise-record four rookies in the season-opener at Indianapolis, the highest number of own draft choices to start for any NFL team on Kickoff Weekend. Offensive tackle Eben Britton, cornerback Derek Cox (pictured), defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and offensive tackle Eugene Monroe all started against the Colts. Cox and Knighton have been in the starting lineup for all eight games.

Knighton (72nd) and Cox (73rd) were selected with back-to-back third-round picks. Knighton was one of nine defensive tackles selected in the first three rounds and is the only one to start every game. There were 22 defensive backs selected in the first three rounds and Cox joins Detroit's Louis Delmas (2nd round, 33rd overall) and Miami's Sean Smith (2nd round, 61st overall) as the only players to start every game.

In addition, there have been 16 different players play in their first NFL regular season games for the Jaguars in 2009 including second-year pros Atiyyah Ellison and Bryan Smith.

"Good teams that are able to sustain success have a blend of young ascending talent with proven veteran experience," Smith said. "We're in a unique situation this year based on the fact that we've committed to turning the roster over and establishing a new team profile, so along with that process we've had a large number of young players contributing to our cause."

In addition to the draft class, the Jaguars added three players that were drafted by other teams in defensive back Don Carey (6th round, Cleveland), safety Courtney Greene (7th round, Seattle) and cornerback William Middleton (5th round, Atlanta). Greene and Middleton were signed following the second week of the season and both play on all of the club's return and coverage units. Greene is tied for third on the team with seven special teams tackles while Middleton has five.

Cox steps right into the starting lineup

Third-round pick Derek Cox wasted little time making a name for himself in the NFL, recording three takeaways including two interceptions in his first four games. Cox ranks fifth on the team with 43 tackles, tied for the team lead in interceptions and tied for second with four passes defensed. The two interceptions are tied for second among all NFL rookies.

Cox registered takeaways on the first two possessions of his NFL career at Indianapolis in the season-opener. After the Colts moved the ball to the Jaguars four-yard line, Cox intercepted Peyton Manning in the end zone. On the ensuing drive, Cox recovered a Joseph Addai fumble caused by Quentin Groves.

The Jaguars traded with New England to move up to select Cox in the third round. Cox was the second-highest drafted player in William & Mary history and joins New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper and Arizona long snapper Mike Leach as the only current NFL players from the school.

Thomas shows his versatility

Veteran wideout Torry Holt has made several references to rookie Mike Thomas as a "long strider" and the former Arizona standout is not disappointing his elder statesman. After being inactive the first two weeks, Thomas has become a vital part of the club's offense and special teams units the last six games.

Thomas has made three starts and serves as the team's primary return specialist. He is tied for fourth among AFC rookie receivers with 19 receptions for 174 yards (9.2 avg.) and has eight rushes for 70 yards. He has played a major role in field position, returning nine punts for a 9.9-yard average and 15 kick returns for a 24.6 average.

"He has taken advantage of his opportunities," Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said. "He's a compact built guy but he is muscular, he runs through arm tackles and he can run. He's got legitimate speed."

Thomas has at least four receptions in three games and has a reception of at least 10 yards in five of his games played. Four of his eight carries have gone for 10-plus yards. He had a career-high seven receptions for 52 yards in week six against St. Louis and followed with a team-high four receptions for 55 yards on November 1 at Tennessee.

Thomas' key plays:

  • In his first NFL game, he ran for 22 yards in the third quarter on an end around on his first career rush at Houston in week three and followed with a 13-yard rush later in the quarter.
  • Helped the Jaguars to an overtime win against St. Louis with three receptions for 27 yards in the extra period including a 17-yard reception which led to the game-winning field goal.
  • Made receptions of 25 and 21 yards on November 1 at Tennessee and had back-to-back kick returns of 40 and 42 yards.
  • Had a career-long 28-yard reception in week five at Seattle.
  • Recorded a career-long 44-yard punt return last Sunday against Kansas City. He moved the ball into Chiefs territory with an 18-yard run in the first quarter.

'Pot Roast' becomes force in the middle

Rookie defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has started all eight games alongside a two-time Pro Bowler who also played a major role in his first season in John Henderson. Knighton, nicknamed 'Pot Roast' by his teammates, has 26 tackles, two tackles for loss and a half sack.

"He's done a nice job," Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. "He's stout in the middle, he's got good balance, he's got good body control, and he uses his hands. I think he's mature beyond his years. I really feel good about him in there."

Knighton finished with a career-high 10 tackles on November 1 at Tennessee and split a sack with Daryl Smith last Sunday against Kansas City.

"Guys like Terrance Knighton, he's had a terrific first half to his rookie season," Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said. "We need him to build on that to be even better in the second half."

Dillard growing into role

The talk about Jarett Dillard prior to the NFL Draft was his ability to make contested catches in tight spaces and he has not disappointed. Dillard established the reputation with 292 receptions and an NCAA-record 80 touchdowns at Rice. His early days as a Jaguar didn't go as planned as he "got a bout of the drops" in the preseason.

"It was frustrating," Dillard said. "I look at every receiver I played with or talked to; every receiver goes through a case of the drops. What really brought mine out was the time it happened. I was a rookie and it happened for about a week and half. Well, a week and a half in camp seems like three weeks when you double the practices up. It was a big deal. You look back on it now and yes I had the drops in camp. That is part of being a receiver."

Dillard quickly reestablished himself and worked his way into the Jaguars rotation. He has five receptions for 99 yards (19.8 avg.) in six games with receptions of 14, 18, 23 and 33 in the last five games.

Two of his receptions have come on third down to extend drives. He pulled in a 23-yard pass on third-and-20 on November 1 at Tennessee for a first down. Last week against Kansas City, the Jaguars were faced with a third-and-13 from their own seven-yard line when Dillard leaped for a career-long 33-yard reception from David Garrard.

"Making the catches that nobody else can make is a saying that Cris Carter stated," Dillard said. "My college coach told me that is what a receiver is, making the catches that no one else can make. That is what I go by. The catch I made this past week and the one against the Titans, I have made that before. It wasn't anything special for me. It was just me finally doing it on a national level, so that was what I was excited about."

Dillard says he is getting more comfortable with his role in the offense. He admits to a few nerves early in games but has started to get a feel for the NFL game.

"As the game goes on you seem to get more and more comfortable," Dillard said. "The game slows down. From mini-camp to now, it's night and day."

It's difficult for teammates to come up with a player he compares with in the NFL. Dillard has a 42.5-inch vertical jump, the third-highest at this year's combine, and he knows it's one of his stronger traits.

"I think it's the intermediate route-running and catching the tough ball," Dillard said; "using my jumping ability in my favor. A lot of guys look at me and see a smaller guy. 'We can get him or do this and that to him.' If I use my jumping ability to my advantage, I think that will be my niche."

With eight games remaining and possible postseason play, Dillard will continue to learn from veterans Torry Holt and Mike Sims-Walker. But when his rookie season is complete, he doesn't need to be told the areas he needs to improve on.

"I'm going to work on my pressure route-running abilities, cutting on different feet," Dillard said. "I'm going to really work on routes I'm having trouble with right now. I already know the routes right now I need to work on and I will see more as the season goes on."

Jones-Drew paying it forward

Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew will never forget the first day of his rookie mini-camp, walking into the locker room and not knowing what to expect from his new teammates. Jones-Drew couldn't wait to meet veteran Fred Taylor, but he didn't know how he would be received. His worries quickly dissipated when Taylor called Jones-Drew over to his locker and the two began a lasting relationship that continues to this day.

Jones-Drew vowed to do the same with this year's seventh-round pick, Rashad Jennings. The two knew each other from sharing the same agent and worked out together in the offseason, which made the transition easier.

"Rashad's been doing a good job," Jones-Drew said. "It takes a little time to adjust to this league. My rookie year, I didn't start playing until week 10. It takes a little time to adjust from college and he's doing a great job now, so he'll probably play more which is good."

Jennings has served as the primary backup through eight games, totaling 97 yards on 20 carries. He scored his first NFL touchdown last Sunday against the Chiefs with a career-long 28-yard run in the first quarter.

"You've been asking about who the other back is and I think Rashad's got some ability," Del Rio said. "He had a real nice touchdown early in the game where you saw some of the talent we get to see all time in practice as he's preparing to be our guy that has the ability to fill in when Maurice needs a blow."

Jennings continues to learn from a fourth-year pro who leads the NFL with 11 touchdowns and has the most rushing yards by a Jaguars running back in team history through eight games.

"Maurice is a phenomenal talent," Jennings said. "We're going to feed him the football. He's a great player. Everybody needs somebody to back somebody up. I'm just out there trying to fight every single day and earn the trust of the coaches and my teammates."

Settling into their roles

Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton were the first pair of rookie tackles to start on opening day in the NFL since 1982 when Luis Sharpe and Tootie Robbins started for the St. Louis Cardinals. Monroe has started five games while Britton has made seven starts.

Ready if called upon

Former San Diego State linebacker Russell Allen went undrafted but was coveted by the Jaguars right after the draft. Allen joined Julius Williams as the only two undrafted rookies to make the roster.

Allen was inserted into the starting lineup in week five at Seattle because of injuries to Clint Ingram and Justin Durant, and he tied for the team lead with 12 tackles. He is one of only three rookies (Cox and Knighton) to play in all eight games and is fourth on the team with six special teams tackles including a team-high three in week four against Tennessee. Williams has five tackles (four solo) as he works way into the defensive line rotation.

David Garrard on the young receivers

"Gene (Smith) and Jack (Del Rio) have done a good job of bringing talented guys in here. They may not be the most glamorous guys but they're reliable. That's what's really important. We've had guys who were supposed to be this or that, highly-touted, but now we have guys you can just rely on. I have a lot of confidence in these guys – from the rookies to the old vets like Torry Holt – I know they can make plays."

* Safety Courtney Greene has seven special teams tackles in five games including three in his second NFL game on October 11 at Seattle. * Jennings led the Jaguars in rushing with 53 yards on nine carries against the Titans in week four. * Tight end Zach Miller has five receptions for 30 yards and three special teams tackles. * Seventh-round pick Tiquan Underwood saw his first NFL action on September 27 at Houston and returned two kicks for a 19.0-yard average. * Knighton was the first rookie in team history to start at defensive tackle on opening day while Cox was only the second rookie to start at cornerback (Fernando Bryant, 1999).

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