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View from the O-Zone: New year, better place for Gerhart

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JACKSONVILLE – He's happy, optimistic and overall just feeling really good.

That's Toby Gerhart these days. And if that's not an unusual state of mind around NFL training camps, it's significant for Gerhart.

One reason is the Jaguars feel the same way about Gerhart entering his second season with the team; they like what they see in the veteran runner. But the biggest reason Gerhart's optimistic state of mind is significant is it wasn't long ago things were different.

It wasn't that Gerhart had given up on football or himself or anything like that.

But feeling good last season wasn't easy.

"Last year sucked, bluntly," Gerhart said.

Gerhart laughed as he said this Thursday shortly after the sixth practice of Jaguars 2015 Training Camp, but there was truth behind the grin.

His first Jaguars season was difficult by any measure. Big expectations. A Week 1 injury, and the aftereffects of that. His production by his own admission was nowhere near what he wanted, and all in all, nothing came easy.

That's why what happened late in the season and this offseason meant a lot to Gerhart.

What happened was the Jaguars never gave up on him, at least not completely. Yes, the team drafted running back T.J. Yeldon in the second round. And yes, Yeldon appears likely to be the feature back sooner rather than later.

But the team believes there is a role for Gerhart, and there absolutely is a belief that Gerhart this season can be closer to the back they envisioned when they signed him last offseason as an unrestricted free agent from the Minnesota Vikings.

"He looks even quicker and faster than he did last year," Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell said this week. "I think he's going to help us a lot this year."

That's not blind optimism. The Jaguars believed strongly in Gerhart last offseason, signing him to be the starter. They liked his versatility as a third-down back and ability as a downhill runner. That got sidetracked when Gerhart sustained a foot/ankle injury on a horse collar tackle by Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox in the regular-season opener. Gerhart went down awkwardly, and then played through the injury for four games before missing two games.

He played the final nine games of the regular season, but lost the effects of his offseason training, never felt the same and never felt he regained his preseason burst.

"The whole process was tough and humbling," he said. "I had to persevere."

Still, he improved late in the season. He rushed for 54 yards on 13 carries in a late-season loss to Baltimore, and then rushed for 53 yards on 12 carries a week later against Houston. The key, Caldwell said, was allowing Gerhart to play to his strengths. Running downhill. Between the tackles.

Which brings us to this season – and back to Gerhart's optimism.

Gerhart smiled a couple of times when speaking Thursday, but never wider than when he discussed the offense this season, and his role in it.

The Jaguars believe new offensive coordinator Greg Olson's offense fits Gerhart's style and that it will allow him to hit holes quicker and run behind his pads. Gerhart believes that, too.

"It allows me to get downhill, move around, play some fullback, play some halfback, split out and do a little bit of everything," he said. "It's a lot of fun. I'm real excited."

You get the feeling watching practice that excitement is warranted. Few have been the days when Gerhart hasn't done something to catch the eye. He has caught the ball consistently out of the backfield, and has broken off an extended run or two in team and 9-on-7 drills.

Here's a look at the 10 best images from day six of Jaguars training camp.

This isn't to say Gerhart will start, and he may not be the 1,000-yard back pundits projected last offseason. But it appears possible Gerhart can be productive as a receiver, and it also seems likely that Yeldon, Gerhart and Denard Robinson are going to share a lot of carries.

Within that framework, Gerhart's potential is a huge wild card entering this season. If he can provide a productive complement to Yeldon, that's that much more balance in an offense determined to run effectively.

Gerhart's motivation to do just that is many-fold. Yes, he wants to show he is better than he showed in what he describes as a frustrating first season with the Jaguars. There's also the matter of wanting to prove Caldwell and Bradley right – for their belief in him initially, and for maintaining that belief.

"I'm excited to get out there and prove those guys right and have a good year," he said. "I never lost confidence going into this year. Obviously, they brought in T.J., but I want to come in and compete. If anything, there's almost a little chip on the shoulder to show what I can do."

Maybe it's a little chip; more likely, it's a big one. Whatever the size, it's significant that Gerhart is smiling when he talks about it.

This is a guy in a good place as Jaguars 2015 Training Camp rolls into the second week.

If he stays in that place and performs as well as he has early, the Jaguars running game could be in a pretty good place, too.

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