Jaguars LBs want to be playmakers, leaders

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Jack Del Rio was a third-round draft pick, a tough player who earned a spot on the All-Rookie team, built an 11-season résumé, made a Pro Bowl trip and amassed nearly 1,000 career tackles.

With a linebacker's mentality underneath his headset, it would befit Del Rio's Jaguars to be led by its linebackers, a group that failed to make enough plays for the 2008 season's disappointing 5-11 squad.

Now, without fixture Mike Peterson -- whose falling out with Del Rio last season added to the team's troubles -- three backers will be trying to put their stamps on the 2009 team: Daryl Smith, 27, a second-round pick from 2004; Clint Ingram, 26, a third-round draft pick from 2006; and Justin Durant, 23, a second-rounder from 2007.

"He expects a lot out of you," Ingram said of Del Rio. "Having him around is really an advantage. He's somebody who played the position and knows exactly what you're looking at. He's not been out of the game too long, he can relate to what we are going through, a lot of the things that we are seeing on the field."

Ingram said Del Rio interacts with the linebackers quite a bit -- "I don't even see where he has time to take care of any of that stuff he has to do as a head coach as much as I see him around" -- and has learned much from Del Rio about being patient in making his reads and using precise footwork.

The Jaguars are finished reflecting on last season, but in conversations with the AFC South Blog this week both Durant and Ingram said they are holding themselves and the linebacker group accountable.

"We had a lot of mental errors, we allowed too many big plays, we allowed too many rushing yards, we just really weren't good as a whole," Durant said. "... I missed too many tackles last year, I didn't make as many plays as I should have made. I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform. I think that I am a playmaker. That's what I am working on this year, my tackling, my open-field tackling and being more physical."

On Ingram's report card, last year the linebackers played C-plus or B-minus football, and he gave himself a C.

"When things are going like that, I feel like I should be able to step up and do some things and get guys going and be one of those guys who can get something rolling," he said. "Defenses feed off of big plays, hits, emotion. Some of that type of stuff I feel like I should have done a better job of, I should have done a better job out on the field showing it. I did all right, but nowhere close to what I expect out of myself, nowhere close to what coaches expect."

He's reluctant to use it as an excuse and knows it affected the entire team, but Ingram was not himself early in the season. He was coming to terms with the shooting of offensive tackle Richard Collier, a close friend who wound up losing a leg.

For a Jacksonville bounce back this fall, the Jaguars' athletic trio of linebackers will need to more consistently make plays. At this time of year, everyone around the league is optimistic about just about everything, but at least they can sketch out why.

Linebackers coach Mark Duffner said the Jaguars allowed their scheme to get blurred a bit last year. The focus now is making things clearer for players so that they are able to use their talents without over-thinking things. They should resist the temptation to overextend. [Still, the defense was centered on takedowns by the linebackers far more than anyone else in the AFC South: Some 42 percent of Jacksonville's tackles were by linebackers, with Houston at 33 percent, and Indianapolis and Tennessee at 29 percent.]

"As much as anything, our staff has worked very, very hard to eliminate the gray in our scheme and allow our players to attack the offensive football team," Duffner said. "I think that is probably the goal of most football staffs. But I feel like we've tried to simplify what we are doing schematically and allow our players to take advantage of the skills, the instinct they have in terms of being able to key and diagnose and finish plays. That's where I see these guys getting more familiar with our scheme and with the fact it's really been streamlined to allow them to take off and play."

Del Rio has worked to create a new and improved vibe around the team, and a big part of that early on has been the new lifting and conditioning program. Ingram said this is the time of year when trust builds, too. Trusting teammates to do their jobs should help each player better focus on only his job on a play.

Ingram tends to try to do too much, he admitted, and said many of the problems last season started with him creating a weak spot by not staying where a play dictated he should be. Now, he pledges better mental focus, increased study and more trust in his keys and teammates. Thanks to the new conditioning program, he said he will be stronger and faster, too.

"I have to take care of my job first, if I am where I am supposed to be and I have my job taken care of," Ingram said. "If I've already whooped my man, then I can go over and try to help somebody else. But until I can get something like that done, I've got to take care of my own first."

The Jaguars judge all three of their top players to be versatile, interchangeable parts. The depth -- Thomas Williams, Brian Iwuh and Tim Shaw -- are an unproven lot.

Last season, Durant and Ingram fought for one outside spot in camp. Each eventually started 12 games as Smith moved inside to take Peterson's place after the veteran, now in Atlanta, had his falling out with Del Rio and was demoted. Smith missed the final two games with a groin injury, creating room for Peterson to finish the season on the field.

How will they be deployed now?

Ingram said it's still being sorted out and that they moved around in minicamp. Both he and Duffner emphasized that the two outside roles are not regarded as distinctly different. The question seems to be whether Smith or Durant will man the middle. Duffner said the team wants to lock Smith into one spot to maximize his chance to find his peak. To do that, they won't be able to keep the setup secret much longer.

Del Rio has talked about using some 3-4 scheme as a changeup, but Durant and Ingram said the team hasn't yet installed those wrinkles. Second-year defensive end Quentin Groves almost certainly would be the second outside linebacker in such situations.

Ingram is more vocal than Durant or Smith, but all three will be looked to for more tone-setting and leadership in the post-Peterson era.

"I learned a lot from Mike, I learned a lot on the field and off the field about how to better my game, study habits, everything in the classroom," Durant said. "He's a great guy and he was a great teammate. I wish him the best. But now we're going to have to step up and be the leaders that he was on defense, we're going to all do it as a unit...

"A guy who's making a whole lot of plays, of course, it's going to be easier for a younger guy to look at him and say, 'We're going to follow his lead and listen to what he has to say.'"