Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Post Mini Camp 2002

As expected, the mini-camp just completed was a get acquainted session for the players and coaches of the 2002 Jaguars. Just over half of the players were brand new, 46 of the 89 on the field had never been there before. A chance for the coaches to let the players know what’s expected, and a chance for the players to size up what it’s going to take to make the team and stick in the NFL.

Also as expected, the focus quickly was on three of the Jaguars draft picks: #1 John Henderson, wearing #98, was “impressive in the one-on-one pass rush drill,” according to Head Coach Tom Coughlin. Henderson is “high-cut” in the vernacular of NFL personnel directors, not a fireplug that you might expect of a defensive tackle. The guy is so big, fast and strong though he might re-define the position. At 6’7”, 307 lbs paired with Marcus Stroud in the middle, the Jaguars hope they’ve found just the tandem they want.

#2 Mike Pearson, wearing #72, “because I didn’t want to get involved in all that,” was Pearson’s response when I asked why he wasn’t wearing his college number, 71. “Boselli was a cornerstone type of player, I’m just trying to keep my mouth shut, listen and learn,” he added when I pushed him a little bit with a “but he’s in Texas,” comment.

Coughlin thought Pearson “learned some things he can use,” during the 5 practices over three days. He’ll be ready to play left tackle (not Brunell’s blind side) by the season opener. It’s the middle of the line that has to be sorted out. Zach Weigert, Brad Meester and John Wade will be fighting for two positions: left guard and center. Meester was a center in college and is a natural there and if he can transition to the middle, that’s where he’ll end up, with Weigert at left guard and Wade fighting for one of the backup jobs.

The #4 pick quarterback David Garrard found himself under the microscope from the outset. First, Brunell said, “he’s not the backup, he’s one of the backups,” when asked about Garrard on Friday. Mark made it very clear to the rookie who’s in charge; asking the rookie “you got a little excited with the microphone in front of your face didn’t you?” Brunell was referring to Garrard’s assertion after being picked by the Jaguars on the second day that he would push Mark for the starting job. “He apologized, he’s a great kid, he’ll learn,” is how the Jaguars starter finished up the discussion of one of the backups.

Coughlin gave Garrard more snaps as the camp went along and then declared he was pleased with his progress. “But nobody’s blitzed him yet,” added the Head Coach. Coughlin knows he’s stuck in a little bit of a Catch-22. He knows Garrard will only get better if he gets a lot of snaps, but the team would benefit with a veteran backup behind Brunell. So he gave the politically correct answer. “If there’s a player who can help our club and we can afford him, we’ll make a move,” is how Coughlin wiggled out of it. He’ll have a decision to make sometime near training camp. There will be some cap money available after they release Keenan McCardell and Hardy Nickerson. So does he want to be one play away from a rookie being the starting quarterback? “I’m glad we don’t have a game tomorrow,” the Jaguars Head Coach noted after five practices. It’s the right kind of team for Coughlin, young, eager and impressionable. Whether a team like that can win is another question.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Post Draft 2002

There’s been so much focus on who’s not on the Jaguars, now that the draft is over its time to look at who is on the team. The names are actually ones you know, but the question is whether they can play or not.

Todd Fordham, Brad Meester, John Wade, Maurice Williams, Zach Weigert, Chris Naoele and now Mike Pearson will compete for spots on the offensive line. They played last year without Tony Boselli and they weren’t happy with Jeff Smith at center, so if, as always, they stay healthy, they’ll be better up front.

Kyle Brady is back and if Pete Mitchell can still catch a pass, they’ll be more productive at tight end. Mark Brunell and Jimmy Smith are still among the best in the game, and Fred Taylor will at least start the season on the field, and with a little luck, will return to elite status.

Keenan’s spot is the big question mark on offense. They’ve signed replacements, but none have shown Keenan’s abilities.

There are a lot of questions on defense, starting right up front with the last two number one draft picks in the middle. John Henderson and Marcus Stroud will have to be real players or teams will run all over the Jaguars. There will be no more hiding in the shadows for the linebackers or defensive backs either. Guys like Danny Clark, Edward Thomas, Eric Westmoreland, Jason Craft and Kiwaukee Thomas have to show they’re bona fide NFL players or they’ll be special teamers at best for the rest of their careers.

Will we learn anything at this mini-cap this weekend? Not really, except what 307 lbs looks like on a 6’7” frame wearing shorts and a helmet. The mini-camp is closed to the public.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Augusta 2002

I don’t know if my annual trip to Augusta would be considered a pilgrimage or a reunion because it feels like a little bit of both. Even the drive through eastern Georgia each spring is nostalgic. Going through towns, like Statesboro, Sardis and Waynesboro, depending on the route we take, seeing how they’ve changed over the past year and gauging the type of spring they’ve had on how far along the azalea’s and dogwoods are in bloom. The landscape can be breathtaking, and even though it’s only a short drive from home, Jacksonville’s seaside, beach town feel in comparison makes it seem a million miles away.

Augusta is a town identified by the medical college but world famous as the home of the Masters. Augusta National is located on Washington Road, a street something like Beach Boulevard near University. Inside the gates might be one of the most beautiful, pastoral settings in the world, but outside is a collection of fast food restaurants, ticket buyers (the sellers are very, very discreet), and street vendors selling everything from black velvet art to unofficial Masters gear. While the Masters has always been a big event, it’s grown in the last ten years to something huge, enveloping the entire town.

The people here are great, polite even when they’re telling you to get lost. They’ve raised the bar on tailgating too. When was the last time you saw people spread out their blanket and cooler and lawn chairs while waiting on line for a seat in a restaurant?

Of golf’s four major championships, the Masters is the only one played on the same golf course every year, so the course itself, Augusta National, is the star. They’ve had to change it over the years to keep up with technology and the ability of the players. Jack Nicklaus’ domination here in the ’60’s had the members make a few changes to the course and Tiger Woods’ assault on the Masters record book gave rise to a re-vamping and lengthening of seven of the 18 holes. These changes were widely publicized and celebrated. Nothing like the quiet changes of the past where you’d walk out of the door of the pro shop headed to the first tee straight ahead, only to have to make a left and march 40 yards up hill to find the new tee box.

The weather will play a role in how the scoring goes this week, but the course changes will make it more difficult. Unlike the other majors where they’ve taken the driver out of the players’ hands, the extra 300 yards they’ve added at Augusta will force players to hit driver and hit it precisely. It probably takes another fifteen guys out of the mix of possible winners, but the long bomber that wins here, will also have played his irons very well and putted better than anybody else. That’s why it’s hard to overlook Tiger, Duval, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els as the favorites, and difficult to see players like O’Meara or Olazabal contending again. They’re great technicians, great scramblers. But just not long enough. But Augusta is full of surprises and surprise winners. That’s part of what they call the “charm.” I told you they were polite.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Irish’s Return

As the picture of six of New York’s finest slowly parading the tattered American Flag to mid-court before Monday night’s national championship game crossed the television screen I elbowed Irish, sitting next to me at the bar and said, “ Hey look, there’s the flag.” Irish, of course, is my close friend Pat Rainey, Commander, soon to be Captain in the U.S. Navy who has just returned from a record setting six months plus deployment aboard the Aircraft Carrier Theodore Roosevelt.

The always-pleasant Irish stared intently at the screen and quickly traveled in his mind a half a world away, to somewhere in the Arabian Sea before he turned to me and said, “You know, it still smells like soot.” It seems the famous Old Glory from the World Trade Center had been delivered to the Roosevelt to be flown as a symbol of just what they were there for. As the Operations Officer (OPSO) on board, Pat was there when the flag arrived from the States and was unpacked. It flew on the Roosevelt, at Camp Rhino and other spots where Americans, like my friend Pat, were fighting the war on terror.

It got me wondering how weird it must be for Pat to sit and watch a sporting event where the guy sitting next to him, in this case me, thinks the outcome is important, only because he hasn’t seen the real important stuff, like, well fighting for freedom. But then again, that’s what the men and women who are on the front lines know they’re there for: so that all of us can continue to live the lives we have and to have the freedom we enjoy. Stuff we take for granted like going to ball games and rooting on our favorite teams. I’m standing there feeling patriotic as they walk the flag out and they guy standing next to me is recalling what the flag smells like? How different have our lives been the last six months?

When we were driving around catching up, Pat was amazed and very gratified to see all of the American Flags on the backs of cars. His daily run took him down a street were each house flew the Flag, which he said really brought home, right in front of him, the reason he’s been doing the work he’s been doing the last six months. He noticed right away that the flags on the Maryland uniforms Monday night were bigger than the one’s on Indiana’s. (Yet another reason, I told him, to root for the Terps).

I woke Pat from a sound sleep with a phone call on the morning of September 11th, telling him to turn on his television, knowing his life was about to be changed dramatically and I wouldn’t be seeing him for a while. And through the exchange of emails and a couple of phone calls during the deployment, I could tell he was busy and focused on what he was doing. We’d laugh occasionally about how different things were for the two of us; I’m going to ball games, he’s going to Afghanistan. Security concerns kept our correspondence light and mainly about what was going on here. That was fine with me, filling him in on the everyday things, portraying a sense of normalcy here at home.

We’ve crowned a college football champion, played the World Series and the Super Bowl and finished the college basketball season since September 11th, hopefully with a little better understanding of how those things, big as they are, fit into the scheme of things and the bigger picture..

So I guess the whole point of this commentary is to say thanks. Thanks to Pat and those like him who didn’t see the Diamondbacks or Hurricanes or Patriots win because they were off making sure we could see the Diamondbacks, Hurricanes, Patriots and yes, the Terrapins win.

So thanks Pat, I’m glad guys like you were there, and I’m glad you’re home