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Turning the corner

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The Jaguars were not perfect at the cornerback position in 2010.

But Gene Smith, now in his third season as the Jaguars' general manager, said recently while that may have been particularly true early in the season, the other side of the issue was that the position had periods of strong play.

Smith said that was especially the case late in the season.

Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox, the team's starting cornerbacks, had strong moments and weak during the 2010 season, but Smith said not only did the duo perform solidly in the season's final weeks, the position should improve as the defense improves.

"They both probably started slow and finished strong," Smith said recently when discussing the team's cornerbacks for this story, part of a position-by-position series on the team's roster currently running on jaguars.com.

"Our corners will play better as our pass rush improves and our safety play improves. We haven't had great safety play, and when you play as much Cover 2 as we do, you can't put your cornerbacks out on an island.

"As we get improved safety play, you'll get improved corner play."

Entering the 2011 season, the cornerback position currently remains much as it was in 2010 – with one notable exception.

Rod Issac, a cornerback from Middle Tennessee State and the Jaguars' fifth-round selection in the April 2011 NFL Draft, is expected to challenge during training camp for the team's nickel cornerback position, a spot played last year by Will Middleton.

Issac has been much-discussed since the Jaguars selected him in the draft, with Smith calling him perhaps the hardest-hitting cornerback in the draft.

Middleton, a third-year veteran, played all 16 games last season, starting three games, forcing two fumbles and finishing with one interception.

At the two outside corner spots, Smith said he expects Cox and Mathis to remain the starters, and when he spoke of Cox, he spoke of a young, improving player with the attitude and approach necessary to develop to an elite level.

 "I think it goes back to being driven to be great, and having the will to prepare," Smith said. "Those are two big things for me: people who are driven to be great, or who have the will to prepare. All great players in the NFL have that even if they don't have a great skill set.

"People may say, 'Drew Brees, he doesn't have an elite arm. He's six-feet tall and not a great athlete, but you know what he does have? He's driven to be great. He has a will to prepare. That's what makes him the player he is.

"Derek has that. He wants to be good. He's driven. He'll do all the things necessary."

Cox, a third-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft from William & Mary, has started 27 games in two seasons. He tied for the NFL lead among rookies with four interceptions, and had four more interceptions this past season.

Cox, who had two interceptions in the Jaguars' victory at Dallas last season, also led the Jaguars with nine passes defensed.

Mathis, a second-round selection in the 2004 NFL Draft and a 2006 Pro Bowl selection, came under criticism from media and fans last season, something Smith said "is unfortunate."

"Up until this year, he's had some injuries that have held him back," Smith said.

Smith also said while Mathis may have had a difficult start to the season, the reality was he played well over the final weeks. He had an interception and seven passes defensed last season while starting all 16 games for the first time since 2006.

"The encouraging thing the fourth quarter of the season this past year was his best quarter," Smith said. "This is a contract year, and I feel confident we'll get his best."

Mathis holds the franchise record with 29 career interceptions, three of which he has returned for touchdowns. He also has 511 interception return yards, which – along with the three touchdowns – also is a Jaguars record.

"He's been a good player here for a long time," Smith said.

At the outside corner position, David Jones – a fifth-year veteran who signed with Jacksonville last off-season after three seasons with Cincinnati – likely will compete with Cox, with third-year cornerback Terrence Wheatley competing with Mathis. Jones and Wheatley – the latter of whom spent much of last season on injured reserve -- likely will back up the two starters, Smith said.

Jones played 16 games last season for the Jaguars, starting five.

The starts were for Cox, who was inactive in Week 3 and didn't play in Week 4 before regaining his starting position over the next three weeks. If the early absence helped create a public perception of a position that struggled all season, Smith emphasized that during the 2010 season – in the case of the Jaguars' corners – perception wasn't necessarily reality.

 "Sometimes our corners are being stressed more than what they should be," Smith said. "Sometimes people put a lot on our corners in terms of challenging them to play exceptionally well. You can see all of their bad plays because they're beat for touchdowns, but I really believe as the pass rush improves and the safety play, the corner play will improve. It's all connected." 

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