JACKSONVILLE – The smile was real, and it returned more than once.
Allen Hurns this past weekend was talking about fellow Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee. What struck you was Hurns' respect for Lee – and how much he hopes his teammate remains healthy this season.
What struck you, too, was the smile.
That came when Hurns spoke of playing at the same time as Lee and Allen Robinson, and if you watched Thursday night's preseason opener against the New York Jets, you know why Hurns was smiling.
"It's beyond exciting," Hurns said.
This isn't a story about what has been – at least not very often.
Rather, it's about what could be. And while injuries to Lee have kept the trio from playing together extensively the past two seasons, what the Jaguars could be when they go three receivers this season has lot of potential.
"We have the talent to be the best receiving core in the NFL," Robinson said. "We push ourselves each and every day. That's the level we can play at. Seeing Marqise back, you see what he brings to the table. If we can stay healthy and stay on the path we're on, it can be a very special year."
That statement is about more than Lee/Hurns/Robinson. Second-year veteran Rashad Greene has serious potential in the slot, and the Jaguars think he's on the verge of a big role. Bryan Walters, Arrelious Benn and possibly Tony Washington have potential to figure in the offense, too.
But the aforementioned trio, the three that entered the NFL together in 2014 …
Robinson, Hurns and Lee …
Doesn't it just feel like that has a chance to be something this season?
Didn't it feel that way against the Jets Thursday? And not just because Robinson was doing what he does routinely these days – i.e., turn just about every 50-50 ball thrown to him into his ball. And not just because of Hurns, who looked like Hurns on Thursday, catching a quick swing pass from Bortles and nearly turning it into a first-quarter touchdown.
Yes, it felt that way because of those things. But just as certainly it felt that way because Lee looked how Lee is capable of looking.
He showed the quickness and athleticism that made him a potential first-round selection in 2014. He showed the playmaking ability that made him the nation's most dynamic wide receiver at times while at the University of Southern California.
Off-and-on hamstring issues have made those things easy to forget – and that Lee was actually selected before Robinson in the second round of that 2014 NFL Draft, the same year Hurns signed with the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent.
One reason for Hurns' smile over the weekend was recalling a series in Week 2 last season against Miami. This was before Lee's hamstring issue returned the following week against New England.
"A-Rob had a catch, come back and 'qise (Marqise) had a catch, come back and I had a catch – it was all of us out there on the field," he said. "It's amazing what it can be. If we have all of us healthy at the same time, it's going to be very dangerous. You can't just take one player out. We complement each other very well."
The unknown, of course, remains Lee. He missed enough time in his first two offseasons that he never got in rhythm. While Hurns and Robinson both surpassed 1,000 yards receiving with double digit touchdowns last season, Lee caught 15 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown. The thought entering the '16 offseason was if he could be healthy he could move into a major role in the offense. He participated in the entire 2016 offseason program, then missed much of the first week and a half of training camp with another hamstring issue.
Lee and the team said this one was minor compared to past issues and Lee showed no aftereffects of injury Thursday.
"We felt the pain for Marqise, that he wasn't out there on the field with us," Hurns said. "When he came back last year he was going hard in the run game, and that says a lot about him. He was happy to be on the field. He wasn't complaining about not getting many catches. That's just the bond we have, all three of us."
The most likely scenario for all of this to happen? Robinson and Lee outside, with Hurns in the slot. That has entailed Hurns working inside extensively in training camp, and Hurns smiled when told some observers wondered if moving inside bothered him.
"It doesn't bother me at all," he said, noting that he not only likes the slot but that seven of his 10 touchdowns last season came from there. "As long as I'm on the field, that's what means the most to me. I want to help this team as much as I can."
Not that Hurns is the only one of the trio who can or will move inside. Hurns said offensive coordinator Greg Olson at the end of the offseason program told the entire trio that all three needed to know all three receiver positions "so we can move around a lot."
"It's going to be exciting, man," Hurns said.
Yes, it could be exciting – and yes, the three-receiver sets could give the offensive a dimension it hasn't had in a long time. And if that happens, the trio could have a lot of reasons to smile.