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Smith surveys defense


(June 1)—The competition at right cornerback will be the feature attraction of training camp, with three players already having worked with the first-team defense at that position this spring and auditions to resume next Tuesday.

"We're having some very healthy competition at that position right now. A number of guys will have lined up with the first team. It'll be the most highly-contested position on the defense," defensive coordinator Mike Smith told on Wednesday afternoon.

Smith was providing a capsule evaluation of spring OTA (organized team activity) practices, that reached the midway mark with a holiday week break from the action. The Jaguars will resume OTA's with a passing camp on Tuesday-Thursday of next week, then conclude with veteran camps on June 14-16 and June 21-22.

"We've got some experienced guys we brought in with Terry Cousin and Kenny Wright, and a new guy in Scott Starks, and then some guys from last year," Smith said of his candidates for the vacant right cornerback job.

To date, David Richardson, Chris Thompson and Wright have worked with the first team. Smith said all of the candidates will spend time with the first team.

It is the Jaguars' position of greatest concern. Last year's starter, Dewayne Washington, was released in March and the Jaguars find themselves with a cast of candidates that include only one player, Cousin, who is a former starter at the position, but he started only five games for the Giants last season.

Last spring, defensive end was the position of concern. The Jaguars were unable to fortify defensive end in free agency or early in the draft, then lost starter Paul Spicer to a broken leg in just the second game of the season.

This spring, much has changed at defensive end. The Jaguars signed Reggie Hayward to a big free-agent contract, acquired veteran Marcellus Wiley and have Spicer back at full strength.

"We've added depth on the defensive line, in addition to a player we think is going to give us a pass-rush and will be an integral piece of the puzzle up front," Smith said of Hayward. "He's looked very good. He's picked up the system and the nomenclature very well and he's starting to feel comfortable lining up next to Marcus, and they're beginning to play off each other very well.

"Marcellus brings that veteran awareness and understanding of how people are going to attack him. Paul has looked very good. We held him out of team segments in mini-camp, then he came back in the OTA's and took all of the reps. He's fully recovered," Smith added.

Pro-Bowl defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, and the acquisition of veteran defensive tackle Tony Williams, give the Jaguars the potential for one of the most talented defensive lines in the league. Also returning from injury is defensive tackle Rob Meier, who also sustained a broken leg as the result of a low block. Meier was lost in Minnesota on Nov. 28.

"Rob is a little behind Paul, but he has taken all of the reps as well," Smith said. "The biggest thing from last season is we were able to accelerate Bobby McCray's learning curve. He steadily progressed and is continuing to progress."

McCray, a seventh-round pick last season, is a player the Jaguars believe can become a pass-rushing force at end.

Linebacker should also be a position of interest in training camp. The Jaguars recently signed veteran linebacker Nate Wayne.

"I think Nate can compete for a starting position. If he's not a starter he can play multiple positions. He'll also be involved in our sub packages," Smith said.

Safety is the Jaguars' position of greatest depth and left cornerback houses the Jaguars' next defensive star, Rashean Mathis.

"Rashean has steadily improved. The third year is talked about as the year players come into their own. He's had a very strong spring. He has a chance to be an elite defensive player," Smith said.

The Jaguars made major gains in points-allowed last season – seventh in the league – but fell from second in the league against the run in 2003 to 11th in '04.

"We have to be a better tackling team. When you tackle well you don't give up explosive plays. Usually when an explosive play occurs in the drive, it's going to lead to points. And we want to get our yards-per-rush attempt back to what we're accustomed," Smith said.

The Jaguars also improved dramatically in sacks, 37, and that figure will be expected to climb even more this year.

"We don't predict," Smith said. "We feel we should be making lots of noise throughout the season. We've got a good core of players and we've added some quality guys."

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