JACKSONVILLE – Dawuane Smoot's objective is clear.
"I'm just trying to take advantage of my opportunities and trying not to go back to where I was," Smoot said this week. "That's really my motto."
Smoot, the Jaguars' second-year veteran defensive end, has reason to not want to return to where he was the first half of this season: on the Jaguars' list of seven inactive players on a weekly basis.
That was the bad part of the Smoot's season and something he doesn't want to repeat.
"Never again," he said.
The good has come in recent weeks, with his playing time increasing dramatically – and his level of play increasing, too.
"I thought Smoot played well," Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone said Monday, a day after the Jaguars' 6-0 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. "I thought he gave us some really good rushes in there. That was good to see.
"That's something that can help us and hopefully that will continue. I did notice that."
That Smoot was in his early-season situation was something of a surprise.
A third-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft – No. 68 overall – from the University of Illinois, Smoot spent the 2017 season as the top backup to Calais Campbell at the team's "big end" position. While he didn't have a sack, Smoot registered 15 tackles with two tackles for losses. He also had five quarterback hurries.
Fast forward to 2018 training camp.
Smoot sustained an ankle injury that forced him to miss the first three preseason games. He was then among several veterans playing in the preseason finale, a game in which players assured a spot on the final roster typically are held out.
Smoot then missed the first eight games of the season as a healthy inactive.
"I'd be lying if I said it didn't get to me," Smoot said. "I really felt like I was more of a player, especially since I played all 16 games the season before. More than anything, I was trying to take every day to make sure I got better. I was just trying to use that time to get better and make my teammates better."
Added Smoot, "It was tough. It's good to be through it. It tested me a lot. It tested my patience. I just did what I had to do. I'm still grinding and trying to get better every day."
Smoot's opportunity came at midseason.
The Jaguars, after a 3-5 start, traded defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. to the Los Angeles Rams for a fifth-round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft and a third-rounder in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Smoot has been active in all four games since, with his playing time increasing steadily. He played in more than 41 percent of the team's snaps in a November 25 loss to the Buffalo Bills. A victory over the Colts this past Sunday marked the first time in his career he had played in more than half the Jaguars' defensive snaps.
He also had perhaps the most-impactful game of his career, registering two tackles and two quarterback hurries in the Jaguars' best defensive game of the season.
"I felt I had a pretty good game," Smoot said. "I felt I had some pretty good pressures, a couple of tackles. I felt like I had a lot more production. It was a long wait, and a long time coming. I'm just blessed I was able to get that opportunity. I just have to take advantage of it as much as I can in these next four games."
Those four games figure to be critical to Smoot – and to the Jaguars determining the makeup of the defensive line moving forward. The Jaguars drafted players such as Smoot and 2018 first-round selection Taven Bryan to key pieces in the coming seasons with some high-profile veterans perhaps moving elsewhere for salary-cap reasons.
If Smoot's role in the Jaguars' future seemed uncertain early in the season, it could become clearer during the season's final month.
"It's very important," Smoot said. "I missed half the season. I have to do something at the end of the season. I'm planning on doing a lot of things. I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help the team win. These past few games have been crucial. There's nothing like game speed, game reps.
"I feel like these last games really helped me and these last four games are going to help me progress as a player."