JACKSONVILLE – The excitement was real and unmistakable.
"It's a blessing," Timmy Jernigan said.
Jernigan, a second-round selection by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2014 NFL Draft who played with the Philadelphia Eagles the past three seasons, signed with the Jaguars as a veteran free agent Monday morning.
It was for the Jaguars a move to solidify a defensive tackle position hit hard during 2020 Training Camp by illness, injury and COVID-19 optouts – but the signing was personal for Jernigan, who attended Justina Elementary School in Jacksonville before graduating from Lake City (Fla.) High School.
"It damn sure feels good to be home," he said via videoconference shortly after the Jaguars' 90-minute practice Monday morning at the Dream Finders Homes Practice Complex.
Jernigan's signing addresses a position that had taken severe losses in recent weeks, most recently Sunday night when veteran defensive tackle Rodney Gunter announced he was stepping away from football because of an enlarged aorta.
Gunter, signed as an unrestricted free agent from Arizona this past offseason, was the third defensive tackle the Jaguars lost since the '20 camp began. Defensive tackle Al Woods, signed with Gunter as an unrestricted free agent to bolster a run defense that struggled last season, opted out of the '20 season for COVID-19 reasons. The Jaguars also placed second-year defensive tackle Dontavius Russell (hip) on injured reserve.
"I don't know if it's scrambling or high-anxiety," Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone said Monday. "It's a matter of, 'Listen, some of the young guys that we have are going to have to step up and we've got to get them ready to go.'''
The Jaguars, who ranked 28th in the NFL against the run last season, selected Ohio State nose tackle Davon Hamilton in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. They also return 2018 first-round selection Taven Bryan and eight-year veteran Abry Jones – the team's most-tenured player – at defensive tackle.
"If they need me to come in and be a heavy run guy, I can make that happen, I can do that," Jernigan said. "If they need me to get to the quarterback, I feel like I have the ability to do both. All I need to really do is just prove to everyone that I'm ready for that."
Marrone also on Monday mentioned acquiring other players at the position via free agency or trade.
"There are a lot of options out there," Marrone said. "I don't think we're in that mode yet of scramble. We're in that mode of planning. You've always got to be able to make adjustments in what you do. The one thing I think I've learned over the history of this league is even though you're doing all these moves – or you're doing all these things to fix things and you feel comfortable – at any moment in time those things can change. And you've got to be prepared and you've got to be able to do it."
Whatever circumstances led to his arrival, Jernigan on Monday said he was "definitely excited" to be playing for a team for whom he cheered growing up.
Jernigan, who said he moved to Lake City when he was nine, said he lived back and forth between Lake City and Jacksonville until he was 11 or 12. He stayed in Jacksonville with an older brother who he called "a big mentor to me."
"In the summers, my mom would send me back here so I'm familiar with the area, I'm familiar with the team," he said.
That familiarity runs deep. Jernigan on Monday talked of playing on a Pop Warner team called the Justina Jaguars – "right there across the street from our apartment complex." He also said he had a "horrible, horrible" jersey of former Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell and a "fake little" Jaguars helmet.
"I always knew about the team," he said, adding that his two favorite Jaguars players were Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, who formed the best defensive tackle tandem in franchise history for the mid-2000s team that made two postseason appearances under then-Head Coach Jack Del Rio. "[I] definitely was a big fan back when big John Henderson and Marcus Stroud were here.
"I definitely used to tune in. That was the good old days – we have to get back to that."
Not everything was ecstasy for Jernigan Monday. His first day of Jaguars practice coincided with the team's first practice in pads, and he joked afterward that he must adjust quickly, "especially in the Florida heat." But he also made clear it's an adjustment he couldn't be more pleased to make.
"It feels like I'm back in Columbia playing again – purple and gold," he said. "I'm definitely excited. I haven't been this happy to play football in a long time. I haven't been this happy in a long time."