WHO: Jacksonville Jaguars
WHERE: Duval, Fla.
WHEN: Thursday, July 26
HOW: A rented Nissan Centra (to which Conor lost the key fob minutes into the journey and Jenny later found by jimmying the trunk of the car) via the Jacksonville airport.
DUVAL, Fla. — A glorious and necessary blanket of gray pre-storm clouds coated the practice field for the opening of Jaguars 2018 training camp, a place that would not have been a destination a few years ago while this roster was under construction.
John Port, a Jaguars fan since the franchise’s inception back in 1995, has been sitting outside the front gate on Day One of training camp for 23 years now, serving fans, police, security and other staff his chili/jambalaya hybrid out of a tall metal pot. Then, and now, he still charges nothing despite the three-day long process, which involves the repeated heating, cooling and reheating of various sauce components in order to build layers of flavor. He fondly remembers being among the few to see Tom Coughlin walking onto the field for his first camp practice (Port said Coughlin waved, laughed but ultimately declined chili back in 1995). It is, without exception, the best chili you will have in your life.
Unlike years past, Thursday brought a much more captive audience for the dish. Jaguars staffers noted an increase in attendance—a line that was building even an hour before gates opened in the muggy 87-degree heat.
One stunning run to the AFC title game can change things, and naturally the question has become whether a fierce defense and ground-control offense can build on a season in which they stunned so many entrenched powers across the league.
“I think there’s guys that maybe it fires up or inspires, but we had high expectations last year. I know I did, I had high expectations for our team and mostly the whole locker room did,” quarterback Blake Bortles said. “Not really a whole lot of people outside of our locker room had those expectations. But now it’s starting to change a little bit and for us, it’s continuing to grow.”
It’s strange: Questions of unfinished business and a Super Bowl run for a team that, a few years ago, was celebrating a legitimate but unsuccessful run at a good player in free agency. It shows how heavy a lift general manager Dave Caldwell had when he took over five years ago, stripping a roster down to bare bones and building from the frame out. The Tom Coughlin reunion has nabbed headlines, mostly because of his deep ties within the Jacksonville era. But this is what a true rebuild in the NFL looks like. It did not happen overnight.
The Coughlin polish can be seen in the tight practices. The intense and loyal band of assistants that have dotted his staffs throughout the years are hoarsely shouting above the AC/DC and Kanye West blaring from the speakers. Looking closer, though, the fans are here to see established young stars who are already dominant or on their way. Jalen Ramsey jerseys. Myles Jack. Dante Fowler. Before the long lines here at TIAA Bank field, there were just a few people in 2013, ’14, ’15 and ’16 working in the dark. Even without the notoriety, it’s just as sweet.
OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT: A flash from undrafted free agent Quenton Meeks—a 6′ 1″, 210-pound corner out of Stanford on a go route down the sideline. Despite the pass slowly sailing out of bounds Meeks battled the receiver down the line and launched himself full extension, swatting the ball out of the way. Jacksonville’s secondary is loaded, but Meeks is a name to keep in mind.
STORYLINE TO WATCH: The evolution of Leonard Fournette will be fascinating. At least from one observer, he looked more fluid and shifty than early 2017, though the lack of a defensive tackle bearing down to make a tackle could have something to do with it. Still, the weight loss he talked to reporters about before camp is noticeable and makes one wonder if he’ll be more of a factor in the passing game. His 36 catches a year ago were nothing to scoff at, but we’ve seen how quickly offenses can skyrocket with the addition of a capable, three-down pass catcher behind the quarterback.
TOP POSITION BATTLE: The wide receiver position needs to shake itself out at some point. Free-agent addition Donte Moncrief, rookie second-rounder D.J. Chark, and returnees Marqise Lee and Dede Westbrook are all names we’ll hear about this summer. The onus is on Blake Bortles to organically develop another receiver he’s comfortable going to now that both Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson are elsewhere. This, surprisingly, was a strength for Bortles in the past. He quietly stayed home during the offseason to connect with his top wideouts and build a rapport.
OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: Tom Coughlin’s son-in-law and former Giants guard Chris Snee is a Jaguars scout but is also in town to help develop the team’s rookies. A smart utilization of resources by the Jaguars, who have had success in recent years building an offensive line from within, then adding pieces via free agency.
PARTING THOUGHTS: There is really nothing like the dread of being the guy in charge of the rental car keys and then discovering you don’t have them once you get back to said car. Oh, also, a grim looking Florida thunderstorm rages in the near distance. I give a lot of credit to the stunned teller at TIAA bank who fielded my panicked call looking for a lost and found, before nicely explaining that this was a bank and not TIAA Bank Stadium. Luckily, as I rifled through grass and garbage, colleague Jenny Vrentas made the heads up play of the day, jimmying open the trunk after guessing I might have locked the key fob there. Safe and sound, this convoy rolls on to Flowery Branch, Ga.
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