For five players on the Jaguars, the date of August 27 is one they will never forget. On that Sunday just over a month ago, the five guys found out that they had made their way onto the active roster of an NFL team.
The Jaguars, coming off a franchise and league-best 14-2 season in 1999, had 11 draft picks to use in 2000, with five of them in the seventh round. Four of these picks were compensatory selections added by the league office for the free agents the Jaguars had lost in the previous year.
For a team like the Jaguars, who hosted last year's AFC Championship game, seventh-round draft picks are generally selections that are very rough and need time to develop on practice squads or are guys who will not make it through training camp. However, the Jaguars' Class of 2000 had something to say about that.
With their original seventh-round pick, the Jaguars chose Erik Olson, a safety from Colorado State. The start of the compensatory selections came five spots later, when Jacksonville took Rob Meier, a defensive end from Washington State, with the 241st pick of the draft. Then they selected a known entity in Shyrone Stith with the 243rd pick. Stith was the starting running back from Virginia Tech who played in last season's mational championship game against Florida State. Illinois linebacker Danny Clark came next with the 245th pick, and Syracuse offensive tackle Mark Baniewicz was the final selection at No. 247.
"It's great. I feel really fortunate," said Olson. "If you had asked me before camp if all five of us would make the team, I would have said you were crazy. You would have had a better chance of putting your money down in Vegas than putting your money on all five of us. The coaches, I guess, saw something they liked. I feel like I just won the lottery, and I bet a bunch of other guys do, too."
For Clark, the sentiment was the same. "It's definitely unusual that, on a 14-2 team, five seventh-rounders make the team, and that happened," he said. "I just want to get in and contribute as much as possible to the winning attitude around here."
One of the longest shots of all to make the team had to be Mark Baniewicz. He was the eighth-to-last player drafted and the lowest selection the Jaguars have ever picked. Now he's the lowest pick to ever make the team's 53-man roster.
"Making this team was a goal of mine coming into camp," said Baniewicz. "I knew I was a long shot being the last guy drafted here, so I knew coming in I had to fight and try to find a role on the team. That's what happened, and I am grateful for it."
Baniewicz plays one of the toughest positions mentally in football, but has probably the best three players to learn from in Tony Boselli, Leon Searcy and Zach Wiegert. In Boselli, the Jaguars have arguably the best left tackle in the NFL since Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz.
"Oh man, it's a great situation for me," Baniewicz said. "I can come in here, be a backup and learn from the best there is. Tony and Leon are guys you can go watch in the film room or just watch on the practice field and take what they do and incorporate it into my game."
"I prepare like I would be a starter," said Baniewicz. "I sit in the meeting and out on the field and prepare like I am going to be the starter this week. That probably won't be the case, but you never know what is going to happen during the week. Someone can go down in the game. I just have to prepare like I am going to be playing, and when my name is called I will be ready."
For Clark, life is different in the NFL. He was a three-time All-Big Ten honoree and finished his Illini career sixth on the school's career tackles list with 384, 10 more than Hall of Famer Dick Butkus. With the Jaguars, he has seen limited play at linebacker, but has been a star on Frank Gansz's special teams. Clark has had 23 tackles in 14 games and is first on the team.
"It is definitely a big adjustment when you get here and you want to make an impact on special teams, which is a very big part of this program. I am very privileged to be part of it," said Clark. "It's a little different not starting. Your focus is different as far as what you are going to be doing on Sunday. I prepare for special teams as well as defense, because you never know how it's going to turn out on Sunday. I prepare both phases and get ready when my number is called."
The linebacker position for the Jaguars, like offensive tackle, is a strength. With Pro Bowlers Hardy Nickerson and Kevin Hardy and 11-year veteran Lonnie Mart, Clark can learn a lot from a trio that has combined for 30 years of experience, with combined totals of 2,656 tackles, 56.5 sacks and 48 forced fumbles.
"I definitely can learn quickly with the linebackers we have - the Hardy Boys and Lonnie Marts," said Clark. "I have followed Kevin Hardy since I was at Illinois, and he is a great linebacker. I watch the actions of Hardy Nickerson, which speaks for itself with his actions on the field. It's great to watch those guys and learn from them."
To improve depth on the defensive front, the Jaguars drafted Meier out of Washington State. Through the preseason and the first three games, Meier has been a productive player. He had six tackles and a team-leading five quarterback pressures in the preseason and has 17 tackles, including a half-sack at defensive end and seven special teams tackles in the first three regular-season games.
The British Columbia native can develop his skills playing with the likes of Tony Brackens, Gary Walker and Renaldo Wynn. The three finished last season with 184 tackles, 23.5 sacks and 46 QB pressures.
"You just learn every day from those guys. All of the guys have been really good and helped me out. With everything they have shown me, there is almost too much to learn," said Meier. "I have worked hard and I tried to do my best. I am thankful the way things turned out."
Olson, the first selection of the Jaguars" seventh-rounders, has made an immediate impact on the team. One reason why he has been so productive is because he knew what to expect and was mentally prepared for the rigors of Camp Coughlin in July.
"I learned fast," Olson said. "I have never been anywhere else, but I had heard this is one of the hardest camps to be in and make, and I knew the odds were stacked against me. I was happy I got to wake up everyday and put in a good day of work and not try to screw up. I wanted to prove to the coaches that I was reliable and could do the job they asked me to do."
Olson has found a home on special teams. He made seven special teams tackles in the first 14 games after piling up nine tackles and an interception in the preseason. To him, playing defense and special teams are completely different.
"It's tough. The mindset is different," he said. "You have to go with the mindset that you are like a gladiator. You almost want to rip your head off and throw your body at people. There's not so much learning the plays and schemes, but what they might do to switch you up. The mental game is taken out, but there is a lot of the physical game. I may block a guy who is 285 pounds on special teams, where at safety I cover guys who are 180 pounds."
Olson was the starting strong safety at Colorado State, but with the Jaguars he drops in the depth chart behind Donovin Darius, Rayna Stewart and Mike Logan. Even though he plays in the defensive backfield, he has no problems learning from anyone on the team.
"I try to look at all the veterans, the guys that have proven themselves. I try to have a listening ear every time Hardy Nickerson talks or Donovin Darius and Carnell Lake - anyone who has been here or is successful in the league," Olson said. "I try to look at them and take any advice they may give anybody else, maybe eavesdrop and get some advice, too. They are more than willing to answer any questions I have."
The star of the five seventh-rounders has to be Stith. He was the most recognizable name coming out of the draft, other than No. 1 pick R. Jay Soward. Stith returns to the state of Florida after playing in the national championship game in Miami.
"The fans just remember me as the Virginia Tech running back," Stith said. "All I see is Seminole and Gator stuff all around, but it's great to see that mentality. I just don't like Seminoles."
Through 14 games he had accumulated 13 special teams tackles and had 30 kickoff returns for 726 yards with a long of 47 yards. Stith made an immediate impact with a 74-yard touchdown run in the preseason but has only 19 carries at running back.
"I just go out there and take the mentality if I was going to be playing on offense. I am going to take care of business on offense and on special teams," said Stith. "I give it my all on every play, and if something good happens, it is because I did something good, not because someone else did."
This Jaguars group of seventh-rounders has proven to be a special group loaded with potential talent and energy. They will have to keep working to get more time on the field, but they have already done what 25 of the 48 players drafted in the seventh round around the league didn't do: they made their team.