JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Maurice Jones-Drew is a star -- a fireplug of a running back who hides behind blockers before exploding into holes, combining power, determination and vision into yards no matter how stacked up a defense might be to stop him.
He’s been a singular offensive presence for the franchise.
But at a time when the league is keyed more than ever around the pass, MJD’s holdout seeking a better contract with two years left on his existing one is going nowhere.
The Jaguars are six days into training camp without him. There is a lot still to be determined and he’s likely to return, even if it’s with a bruised ego, once game checks are at risk.
While he’s absent, it seems fair to ask: Are the Jaguars the sort of running team we’ve seen elsewhere in the league, in which the system, as much as the back, is the key to success?
Could the Jaguars give the ball to Rashad Jennings and changeup back Jalen Parmele and still get a lot of the rushing yards they managed with Jones-Drew, particularly if the passing game grows and actually backs some defenses off?
I hardly think that’s inconceivable.
“You really can’t judge until you play at full-speed, with tempo, in the preseason and maybe not even until the regular season,” Jaguars running back coach Sylvester Croom said. "There are a lot of questions to be answered. But I like the attitude of this group, I like the work ethic."
Jennings is even-keeled, and talks over and over about how nothing in his mentality changes now, how as a No. 2 back he’s always worked as if he’d be taking No. 1 reps.
“Mentally, I’ve always been the guy,” he said.
Last year he went on IR during training camp with a sprained knee. He could have made it back during the season, but the team hastily put him on the shelf and then suffered the consequences. On 123 carries in 2009 and 2010, Jennings averaged 5.4 yards a carry. In 2011, Deji Karin averaged 2.1 yards a carry as the top alternative to MJD.
At practice, Jennings looks confident and assertive. He’s half a foot taller than Jones-Drew and nearly 20 pounds heavier. He qualifies as a power runner and is suited to how the Jaguars block. He’s also a long-strider with more breakaway speed.
Through the entire offseason, he’s been at the top of Jacksonville’s running back depth chart.
“It looks like he is very comfortable with the offense,” coach Mike Mularkey said. “He understands what we’re trying to do, he’s playing fast, he’s seeing things with the run game, and even in protections he’s doing better. There’s no thinking going on like there was earlier when he first got here.”
But he’s yet to show he’s got anything close to MJD’s vision and ability to sense where and when a sliver of room will show up, or where he can muscle through.
Pressed, he admits 25 carries are more to get excited about than five. Still, he’s not thinking that a protracted Jones-Drew holdout is good for him, nor is he rooting for something that isn’t in the team’s best interest -- even though a chance to show what he could do as a lead back could create an opportunity for him as he heads toward free agency in 2013.
“You still get your opportunity, five carries to show what you can do,” he said. “Anybody would love to carry the load. It’s not about me, it’s not about me first, it’s about this team and a lot of other guys.”
I asked a scout and ESPN.com's Matt Williamson their opinions on Jennings.
“Solid, but not spectacular,” the scout said. “Coming off the injury is a concern. He has good size, frame, is an all-around back. But he’s just a solid backup type, not a full-time, 16-week starter. “
“I am very high on Jennings and believe that he could start for eight to 10 teams in the league,” Williamson said. “I actually helped recruit Rashad to Pitt [before he transferred to Liberty]. He’s a big, physical back that knows how to use that size. He has better hands and aptitude in the passing game than you would guess, and well above-average feet. He’s one of the best backup RBs in the league.”
The guess here is that Jennings would be unmoved by either review. He’s got to get better, he’ll say, and he will.
Sitting out last season, he observed the game from all different perspectives: From the stands, from a coach’s standpoint, from a coordinator’s.
“I had a lot bottle up,” he said. “…I’m bringing back a lot of energy, a lot of emotion. I healed physically, mentally, emotionally.
“There was a lot of growth from watching. To come back going into your fourth year feeling comfortable, understanding the game, it’s completely different. …It calmed me down.”
Perhaps he’ll be able to do the same in the coming weeks for those in a panic over Jones-Drew.