Rashean Mathis headed into the Jaguars offseason program knowing his leadership role was going to expand in 2007. Mathis is entering his fifth NFL season having played in all 64 games since being drafted in 2003, and was voted as a starter for the Pro Bowl in 2006.
Mathis showed one of the first signs of his new role on the practice fields on June 14, the day veteran safety Donovin Darius was released. While battling through practice thinking of his friend, Mathis wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page. He gathered the secondary in a group for a short talk after practice.
"When decisions are made the coaches can only tell you so much," Mathis said. "It's on us. You have been coached all your life. If you don't have it in your heart or your mind to step up and take on the challenge then it's not going to be done. It's within a team, a defense and within the secondary that we have to step up as a secondary unit and lead this team."
Mathis' leadership role will be put to task this season as the Jaguars look to improve on one of the NFL's top defenses since 2003. The Jaguars ranked second in total defense in 2006 (4th rushing, 10th passing), the highest ranking in team history. The defense set a franchise record with 20 interceptions led by Mathis' team-record eight, the third-most in the NFL.
"I feel that I've been here long enough," Mathis said. "I'm one of the five-year guys on the team now, so if I can't do it, who can? So, it's a role that I'm taking especially with the DBs on just letting them know to be in the right position and talk to the guy next to you and it'll make the defense work even better."
There will be plenty of competition in training camp for the starting safety spots led by third-year safety Gerald Sensabaugh and 2007 first-round pick Reggie Nelson.
"(Gerald) Sensabaugh has proven he can play," Mathis said. "We know that he can stop the run and we know he has the quickness to cover the pass. He has paid his dues and we know what to expect out of him. Reggie (Nelson), we drafted him in the first round and now it's time for him to step up. You never know when your number is going to be called."
Sensabaugh remembers Darius and former safety Deon Grant taking him under his wing and his trying to do the same with Nelson and fellow rookie Josh Gattis.
"I show whatever I know to Reggie (Nelson) and tell him," Sensabaugh said. "There are no secrets. I treat him like a brother just like the older guys showed me. I got a lot of help from the older guys. All I can do is help the younger guys. I have to do what's best for our football team so we can be the best and go get a Super Bowl. I am telling everybody I know all I know about football, everyone I have to compete with, too."
Mathis has liked what he has seen of Nelson, but knows it will take time to learn the system.
"He's an athlete," Mathis said. "Right now, we have a lot of athletes on this team and he's one of them. He's one of the young athletes. With him it's all about grasping the system, how fast can you learn the playbook, and when you learn the playbook, it's going to allow you to play faster. So that's his main concern right now, learning the playbook and being able to play as fast as he did in college."
The addition of Nelson along with the return of defensive end Reggie Hayward and linebacker Mike Peterson from injury give the club a formidable defense heading into the season.
"We have a lot of guys dedicated to the program and to the schemes we are running," Mathis said. "When you have somebody that's believing and receiving all the information that we're getting, it will just make us better on the field."