JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- There was a lot of scrambling on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice fields on Saturday afternoon – most of it by team officials to accommodate one of the biggest crowds in team history.
A steady flow of fans packed the practice field for the second day of the Jaguars’ rookie minicamp. They showed up about an hour before the 1 p.m. workout started, lining up into the parking lot in front of EverBank Field.
And they kept coming and coming and coming …
The final count: 6,214 fans, the most to ever watch a Jaguars rookie minicamp and nearly 2,000 more to attend a training camp session.
"This feels like it felt like it did in 1996 because of the enthusiasm that something better is on the way," said Brian Sexton, the team’s play-by-play radio announcer for the franchise’s first 19 seasons.
There’s certainly reason for the optimism. The Jaguars’ draft class has been lauded by draft analysts and experts across the country as one of the best in the league. General manager David Caldwell took former Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles with the No. 3 overall pick and followed that with a pair of receivers in the second round: USC’s Marqise Lee, whom many regarded as a first-round talent, and Penn State’s Allen Robinson.
Bortles looked a little better on Saturday than he did on Friday. He completed 12 of 18 passes and was the victim of two drops. Robinson stood out by digging out a low throw and making a diving catch on a deep ball thrown by undrafted free-agent quarterback Stephen Morris.
For fans starved for offense – the Jaguars averaged a league-low 15.4 points per game and scored a league-low 23 touchdowns in 2013 – the first three picks were answered prayers. That’s a big reason why 2,054 attended Friday’s practice and more than three times that many were out there on a sunny, breezy afternoon.
Both sets of 500-seat bleachers were packed by the time the team finished stretching. The overflow section behind the first practice field filled up pretty quickly after that. So many kept arriving that team officials had to shut the gates and only allowed fans to enter when some left. Some fans even watched the practice through the bottom of the fence surrounding the fields.
Jaguars officials quickly cleared additional space behind north end zones of the second and third practice fields and re-opened the gates. When the Jaguars worked exclusively on the first practice field for the final few periods, security allowed fans on the middle practice field so they could get a closer look.
"How about the fans?" Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. "I look and they’re all lined up underneath [the tarps on the fences]. I don’t know how many people were there, but what a credit to [owner] Shad [Khan], what a vision. When I go around and talk to people, they feel so confident in his vision. I think it’s a credit to him and the organization and it feels good, I do know that.
"And our fans, we talk about ‘connect with the following’ and try to help them go along this journey with us. We get excited, they get excited. When we have tough times, they have tough times. We are going to do this thing together and to be able to come out and see a group of people that are that passionate for good football and to watch passionate players is something."
Tight end Reggie Jordan, one of 27 rookies that were given a tryout, said he has played in front of smaller crowds at Missouri Western State in St. Joseph, Missouri.
"Some days you’ll have, like, 4,000 or 5,000,” Jordan said. "Some days you’ll have, like, 10-12 [thousand]. It was pretty small.
"It just depends on who we played. We knew that when we had a lesser opponent it wasn’t going to be very good."
There hasn’t been this many fans watching a rookie minicamp practice since 2,378 attended a session in 2003, which was quarterback Byron Leftwich’s rookie season. According to the Jaguars, the largest crowd to ever watch a training camp practice was 4,500, which happened several times.
Former Jaguars offensive tackle Tony Boselli, the team’s first inductee into its ring of honor (Pride of the Jaguars), said the atmosphere was similar to the franchise’s early years, especially for the team’s first training camp in Jacksonville in 1996. The Jaguars had camped in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, in their inaugural season.
"It’s always hard to compare because we didn’t have open practices this time of year. Everything was closed," Boselli said. "But it reminds you a little bit of that ’96 training camp with all the buzz. … I think people are really hopeful that this thing is on the right track.
"I think it’s infectious and I think people are pleased so far with what they’ve seen, what Dave’s been able to do, so I think there’s a lot of hope right now. And you draft a quarterback first; everyone gets excited about a quarterback."