NBA Game Coming Back to Jacksonville

NBA Jax scoreboard

by Cole Pepper

It took four years, but the NBA is coming back to Jacksonville.

The Orlando Magic will play the New Orleans Pelicans on October 9, 2013 at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. it’s the third time the Magic have played in Jacksonville and first in five years.

In 2008, the Magic and Miami Heat played an exhibition game. The following year, the Heat faced the Atlanta Hawks. Those games had some star power, even in the pre-Lebron James era for Miami. Dwayne Wade and Dwight Howard were the featured players n 2008, and in 2009, there was some local flavor with former Gator Al Horford on the Hawks and Udonis Haslem on the Heat.

This game will feature substantially less star power considering that Eric Gordon and Tobias Harris were the leading scorers for the two teams (if you don’t know who was on which team, don’t feel bad).

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Will the next Magic star get this as a signing bonus?

However, the Magic hold the #2 pick in the NBA draft and could select a more recognizable name (albeit in a weaker draft). Kansas freshman Ben McLemore and Michigan’s Trey Burke have both been mentioned as possible selections for the Magic.

Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, as he reminded us today, dreams big and he “can see an NBA team in Jacksonville’s future.”

That remains to be seen. This game is also not much of a draw for visitors. What it does, it continue to show the nation that Jacksonville is a sporting event friendly city.

“It’s going to showcase that Jacksonville is a destination for sports and entertainment,” Mayor Brown said. “This also allows us to diversify our portfolio.”Mayor NBA quote

By portfolio, the Mayor means the variety of sporting events that have come to Jacksonville in his administration. That would include everything from the college basketball game on the Navy ship to International soccer matches to much smaller events.

Tickets for the NBA preseason game, which will be the pre-season opener for both teams, are on sale at the Arena ticket office, online at JaxEvents.com or on Ticketmaster. Prices range from $15-$250 for courtside seats. VIP opportunities are also available via the City of Jacksonville Sports & Entertainment office at (904) 630-3697.

Jaguars Defense Will Look and Feel Different

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by Cole Pepper

In the previous 18 season of Jaguars football, you can count on one finger the number of Jaguars defenses that really got after the quarterback.

That was 1999. An you can make the argument that it was as much about the offense getting ahead of teams as it was about the personnel. Dom Capers was the defensive coordinator back then, but Capers was running a 4-3 defense instead of his favored 3-4. Still, with Capers employing an adapted version of the zone blitz defense, the Jaguars set a franchise record with 57 sacks during a 14-2 regular season.

The Jaguars have never truly had a “keep the quarterback up at night” pass rusher. Tony Brackens came close. Never in the history of the franchise have the Jaguars had a Dwight Freeney, DeMarcus Ware or Derrick Thomas.

They still don’t have that guy on the roster.

So it is up to Bob Babich to work with the players on the roster to find a pass rush.

That’s why the Leo position has been talked about so much.

The Leo position is the pass rushing position in the defense that Gus Bradley used in Seattle and that Babich will utilize in Jacksonville. What is the Leo?

“That’s a guy who can set the edge against the run and who creates problems for the offensive tackle,” said Babich.

Rules changes have made the passing game an even more vital part of NFL offenses and so the ability to pressure the quarterback is even more essential to defensive success. I asked Babich what is more important in creating sacks, pass rush or coverage, and he wouldn’t commit to one over the other.

“You know what we talk about? We talk about rush AND cover,” Babich said. “It’s a combination of both. The ball has to come out quick, but at the same time, to get a lot of sacks, you have to have good coverage. To have good coverage, the ball has to come out quick. We talk about that all the time.”

Still, it’s much harder to scheme coverage than it is to scheme pass rush. It’s not easy to do it without the horses in either case.

I’ll detail the defensive line in an upcoming post, but for now, the move of Tyson Alualu from defensive tackle to defensive end will mean that the Leo position will be hotly contested in training camp. Jason Babin is the front runner, but Andre Branch and possibly Jeremy Mincey could compete for time at that position. Mincey isn’t an explosive pass rusher and my expectation was that that would eliminate him from the competition, but that’s not the case according to Babich.

“Until we get the pads on…we haven’t had a chance to see what we have,” Babich admitted. “Ideally, we’d like for [the Leo] to be explosive. and we would like our (other) defensive end to be explosive.”

How this defense will fit together is going to be one of the four or five most intriguing story lines of the preseason. Will the Jaguars find a pass rush? Will the revamped defensive backfield provide enough coverage to allow the pass rushers to get to the quarterback?

It’s too early to tell for sure, but it appears that the other X-factor is middle linebacker. Paul Posluszny is the dictionary definition of a 4-3 middle linebacker. And although the Jaguar are technically going to be a 4-3 team, there are hints that the middle linebacker position will be different than in the past. How will Posluszny, who is as football-smart as they come, adapt?

In general manager Dave Caldwell’s first draft, he addressed the defensive backfield heavily, spending four of his seven draft picks in the back end. That left the front seven to be the focus of free agency. I suspect that the Jaguars first round pick in 2014 will either be a quarterback or a pass rusher, but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here.

Ultimately, like the rest of the team, this is year one of a rebuild of the defense. When the season begins, its likely that only Dwight Lowery, Posluszny and Russell Allen will be returning starters at the same position, and Allen isn’t a lock since he can play all three linebacker positions.

The Jaguars defense is a summary study of the Jaguars organization this year: a few recognizable parts, but an almost entirely new construction.

Kommentary: Colllege Wurld Ceries

photo: CardinalSports.com
photo: CardinalSports.com

Eye dont cee whut thu bigg deel iz wit thu spellling misteak onn thu duggowt ruf att thu Colllege Wurld Ceries.

Eye meen, wutz thu bigg deel wit spellling anywai? Everywon haz spelll chek nowadaze. Soe sum gie wit uh payntbrush addedd un xtra lettr. Bigg wup. Didd peeple inn thu standz thynk thay wur watcheeng sum uther eevent?

Alll u colllege profesurs neeed two git ovur urselvs. Gust injoy thu gamez, wroot four yer skool andt grabb uh hawt dogg unda drynk. Everythyng wull wurk owt gust phyne. Et didd four thu Kanzasitee Chefs.

Cee?

Chefs endzone

Jaguars Off-Season Analysis: Cornerback

Trufant
Marcus Trufant bring experience in Gus Bradley’s defense from Seattle. He figures to start at one cornerback spot for the Jaguars this season. (photo: Jaguars.com)

by Cole Pepper

When last season began, the Jaguars starting cornerbacks were Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox. Neither are still with the team.

Aaron Ross was expected to serve as the nickle corner. He’s not longer with the team.

Backups included Will Middleton, Kevin Rutland and Mike Harris.

Of those top six corners, only Rutland and Harris are back for 2013. No position saw as much turnover from the Gene Smith-era to the first year of the Dave Caldwell regime.

So who starts in 2013? Using mini-camp as a guide, it would appear that defensive coordinator Bob Babich will go with one corner with a lot of experience in the Jaguars defense and one with no experience in the NFL. Former Seattle Seahawks Marcus Trufant on one side, and rookie third round pick Dwayne Gratz on the other.

Trufant’s best years may be behind him, but he bring experience in this defense. He played under Gus Bradley when Bradley was the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks. Hi familiarity with the scheme will be invaluable in the early stages of the season. He could be pushed by free agent acquisition Alan Ball. Ball signed as a free agent this off-season after one season in Houston. He has only been a starter for one year in his career (2010 with the Cowboys).  His reputation is more of a physical corner than a ball hawk, he has only three career interceptions.

On the other side, watching Gratz in mini-camp, you can immediately see what the Jaguars scouts liked about him. He’s smooth, quick and athletic. That doesn’t always translate into being a great corner, but the former UConn star seems on track to start from day 1.

Who fits in after that? If Trufant beats out Ball to start, Ball could play nickle, although second year man Mike Harris looked good in that role at the end of last year. Kevin Rutland is also back. Speed is his best asset. And then there’s Antwon Blake, who was a rising star on special teams. That’s likely to be where he makes his largest impact.

In addition to Gratz, the Jaguars spend a pair of seventh round picks on corners. New Mexico State’s Jeremy Harris and Demetrius McCray from Appalachian State will both have a chance to make the team, but to do so, they will likely have to unseat Mike Harris, Rutland or Blake and its most likely that they would have to shine on special team to make the cut.

In any case, the corners, and the defensive backfield as a whole, will have a much different look for the Jaguars. After giving up nearly seven yards per attempt to opposing passers, that’s a good thing.

CB Depth Chart

 

*-rookie

Father’s Day Memory

al20cowens1
I wonder if Al Cowens remembers seeing me at my first baseball game in 1977.

by Cole Pepper

Neither my father nor I are particularly emotional people. I am, however, fairly nostalgic, especially when it comes to sports. In particular, the teams that I cheered for in my youth.

On this Father’s Day, I thought I would share the story that most powerfully comes to mind when people start talking about memories with their fathers.

In 1977, the Kansas City Royals were a young team with a starting lineup that featured five players 26 years old or younger: second baseman Frank White, left fielder Tom Poquette, catcher Darrell Porter, right fielder Al Cowens and 24-year old third baseman George Brett.

In addition, 21 year old Willie Wilson, 19 year old Clint Hurdle and 23 year old U.L. Washington all got a cup of coffee that year. Most of these names would serve as the foundation for the success of the Royals in my early formative years.

For those of you under 30, I should take a moment here to point out that in those days, not only did the Royals content, but they actually won. You can check out the championship flags at Kauffman Stadium if you don’t believe me.

On April 30, 1977 (it was a Saturday), Dad announced that he was going to take me to the Royals game the next day. At the age of four, I was already a Royals fan. I watched every game that I could and had a better chance of reciting the batting order than I did of finishing my ABC’s. I don’t know what first grabbed me about baseball. Maybe it was the excitement of the announcers when something happened. Maybe it was that the home team was winning and so I felt like I had “chosen” correctly to root for the Royals. Whatever the reason, the next day would be my baseball baptism.

I would love to tell you all of the details of the morning, but all I can remember is climbing into my dad’s old Audi (I think it was an Audi 100) and spending the 30 minute drive in overload knowing that I was going to see the Royals in person. This was to be one of the two most memorable moments of 1977 (I’ll thank George Lucas for the other one).

When we arrived at then-Royals Stadium, I had a hundred questions. They started as we approached the parking attendant. “Dad, what’s that guy do?” “Dad, did you see that truck?” “Dad, can we get cotton candy?” “Dad who are the Royals playing?”

“He takes money for the parking lot, yes I did, we’ll see and the Toronto Blue Jays,” he answered. We had just gotten out of the car.

I think we parked pretty close, but at 4 years old and in anticipation of what was about the happen, the stadium looked like it was a million miles away.

When we finally got into the stadium, we walked to our seats and as we walked down the concourse, I could see the bright green of the Royals Stadium artificial turf flash through the tunnels. I had never seen anything so…well, so green.

I asked dad about and he said that it was artificial turf, which led me to refer to all artificial turf as just “turf” for quite a few years. It wasn’t until someone offered my surf and turf that I realized my mistake.

Dad patiently answered questions about what the scoreboard was all about and when John Mayberry was going to hit (I remember being disappointed when he walked, instead of hitting a home run).

Looking at the box scored on the indispensable website Baseball-Reference.com, I see that Brett led off and that Tom Poquette, who never quite lived up to the early promise, hit third. The Royals collected five doubles (they hit a lot of doubles and triples in those days) and that Larry Gura pitched seven efficient innings of six hit ball to get the win as the Royals beat the Blue Jays 8-2. Most of those facts I don’t remember. For some reason, i remember the name Otto Velez. Maybe because he hit a home run for the Blue Jays.

All I remember is that the Royals won, Dad had an answer for every questions. I think we got cotton candy and to that point in my life, it was the best day that ever existed.

A Little Fun with Baseball Numbers

Do you know this man? He almost won the American League Most Valuable Player Award once.
Do you know this man? He almost won the American League Most Valuable Player Award once.

by Cole Pepper

This one is mostly going to be for my Kansas City friends or for people who really like to look at old baseball statistics, you know, the nerds.

Take two players. Here’s player A:

162 games, 98 runs, 189 hits, 32 doubles, 14 triples, 23 homers, 112 RBI, 16 stolen bases and a .312 batting average. For some advanced numbers .885 OPS (on base percentage + slugging percentage).

Here’s Player B:

139 games, 105 runs, 176 hits, 32 doubles, 13 triples, 22 homers, 88 RBI, 14 stolen bases and .312 batting average. For some advanced numbers, .905 OPS.

Player A finished as the runner up in the American League MVP voting. Player B finished 13th in the voting. They played on the same team.

These were the statistics for the 1977 Royals teammates Al Cowens (player A) and George Brett (player B). At the time, Cowens was 25, Brett was 24. Brett batted leadoff most of the year, was the defending batting champ and for the second year in a row, was chosen as an All-Star.

Cowens lost out to Rod Carew in the MVP voting and at first glance you would be impressed that there were two of the top 13 MVP candidates from the same team. Until you realize that five Yankees finished in the top 11 (Graig Nettles, Sparky Lyle, Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson and Mickey Rivers). Heck, the Red Sox had three in the top 10 (Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk and some guy named Bill Campbell, nicknamed Soup like every other guy name Campbell in history, who led the league with 31 saves that year while averaging two innings per outing).

What got my attention was how similar the numbers were for Cowens and Brett at about the same point in their careers. 1977 was Cowens’ breakthrough season. He had never hit .300 in his three previous big league seasons, had never driven in 100 and never had more than 155 hits, much less the 189 he collected that year. He also won the gold glove in right field in a year when he had 14 outfield assists (Cowens always had a good arm, hitting double digits in outfield assists in his first four seasons in the big leagues). Cowens did commit six errors, a lot for a right fielder.

From looking at the numbers, you would have thought that these two young hitters who could both run, had good gap power and emerging home run pop would both be in line for great careers.

Instead, Brett went on to the Hall of Fame, while Cowens never again hit .300 again, never drove in more than 78, and never collected more than 152 hits in a season. What happened? Was the 1977 season just a flash in the pan? Statistically, yes it was.

Cowens had been a long shot, drafted in the 75th round in 1969. Mike Piazza is the famous late round draft success story. Clearly, he had a better career than Cowens, but Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round as a favor.

Cowens had his jaw broken by a pitch in 1979 and I recall the jaw guard that Cowens had attached to his batting helmet. It would be easy to say that the broken jaw was the catalyst for his career tailing off. The Royals traded Cowens to the Angels for Willie Aikens and two utility infielders, Todd Cruz and Rance Mulliniks.

I suppose its a less in two things. First, just because a young hitter has a good year, it doesn’t mean they will keep having good years (it’s just statistically more likely to happen). Second, baseball favors outfield defense a whole lot less now than it did in 1977.

 

Jaguars Rookies Adjusting to Life in the NFL

Gratz minicamp
Jaguars rookie cornerback Dwayne Gratz (27) is one of six rookies who could start for the Jaguars in 2013. (photo by: AP)

by Cole Pepper

Six weeks have passed since draft weekend, but for rookies all around the NFL, it’s been a crash course in pro football.

Several of the Jaguars rookies I spoke with at the team’s mini-camp this week talked about a number of similar themes: the speed of the game, the opportunity to focus just on football and the attempt to realize their dreams of making and NFL team.

Make no mistake, some of the high draft picks are all but assured a roster spot. Some, like second overall pick Luke Joeckel, second round pick Jonathan Cyprien and third round corner Dwayne Gratz have been working with the first team. Others, are just hoping to earn a spot on the roster, or even the practice squad.

Perhaps the most compelling Jaguars rookie is former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. He has more to learn than any of the rookies as he makes the move to running back.

“I have to learn the offense and learn to be a running back first,” Robinson said. “How to do the right things like a running back, how to run routes, make sure I know how to get to the blocks, get to  the linebackers. I just have to be a sponge right now.”

Denard Robinson mini-camp
Denard Robinson is adjusting to life as a running back. The college quarterback could be the Jaguars starting kickoff returner come opening day. For now, he’s learning how to approach the game from a new position.

Robinson can turn to veterans Maurice Jones-Drew or Justin Forsett for guidance, but with Jones-Drew not working out with the team full-time and Forsett new to the Jaguars, he is also leaning on fellow Michigan alum Chad Henne for help.

“I’m trying to get with Chad and go somewhere with him (this off-season) so I can get better at catching the ball and learning the offense,” Robinson said.

Cornerback Dwayne Gratz (pronounced Grahts) has a veteran at his position to turn to. But Marcus Trufant can be even more valuable to the rookie because Trufant was signed as a free agent from Seattle, where he played in Gus Bradley’s defense.

“He just talked to me and said that as a young player in the NFL, he thought he had to make every play,” Gratz said. “He said just relax and feel comfortable. There are going to be plays where they’re catching the ball on you. You just have to forget that.”

Fullback Lonnie Pryor is also adjusting. He told me that he has to put on at least five pounds of muscle to be better as a fullback. He’s also spending lots of time in the classroom learning the offense.

“It’s kind of like a job now,” Pryor said. “In college, you have to worry about school, but now, I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do my whole life.”

 

Gus Bradley Looks at QBs Differently

Gus Bradley minicamp

by Cole Pepper

Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley said something interesting after the final mini-camp practice that I have long suspected, but haven’t heard many coaches admit publicly: as a defensive minded coach, he judges quarterback’s differently than the offensive coaches.

“The things that I’m looking for offensively from the quarterback are probably different than what Frank (quarterbacks coach Scelfo) and Jedd (offensive coordinator Fisch) are looking for,” Bradley said. “My mindset for the quarterback is that I want him to be the leader. I want him to compete play in and play out and demonstrate his belief. That simple. The other things, I know the other coaches will take care of, but that’s what I know we need as a team.”

It makes sense, but its not something you hear very often.

As a coach who cut his teeth on the defensive side of the ball, Bradley isn’t as concerned with the quarterback’s progression through the route tree, or the depth of his drop or if he looks off the safety. At least, not yet. No, at this point in the off-season, Bradley is looking for quarterbacks to move, act and behave like a quarterback should.

He’ll leave the other analysis to his offensive coaches.QUOTE Bradley on QB minicamp

Bradley’s coaching approach is beginning to emerge with each practice session. It’s clear that, as it comes to offense anyway, he’s going to look for the higher level issues like leadership and approach and not be as concerned with the tactics and the day to day operational issues that the offensive coordinator will deal with. It does not appear that he will take that same approach with the defense where he has been more hands on.

Fisch told me last week that the best thing the quarterbacks have done this off-season, as a group, was protect the football. That can lead to confidence which can show up with some of the things that Bradley is looking for. It will be interesting to see how much he weighs those factors in the final analysis. At some point between now and opening day, Bradley will have to make the decision on who his starting quarterback is going to be.

Handicapping the race, based on Bradley’s criteria

If you simply use Bradley’s criteria, here’s how I believe the quarterback competition would look as of now. And note that both Gabbert and Henne have worked with the first team, although Gabbert has taken far more snaps with the ones.

Leadership – To this point of his career, Gabbert has not been as comfortable playing the role of leader. Last year, there were some Jaguars who privately questioned Gabbert’s leadership. According to a story by Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports, one former Jaguars assistant called him “Blame Gabbert” because nothing was ever his fault. Gabbert is still young, but that excuse is running out of steam. Henne, I’m told, just acts more like a quarterback in the meeting rooms and on the field. Advantage: Henne

Competitiveness – Both Gabbert and Henne are competitive. Neither likes to lose, but so far we’ve not seen either of them “will their team to a win.” Gabbert played with some injuries each of his two seasons in the NFL. Advantage: Push.

Belief – This is a tougher category to handicap. How much will either quarterback believe in what they’re doing in the system. Based on Gabbert’s self-assured nature, you would have to give him the edge here, but Henne has much more of a “don’t sweat the small stuff” approach. That can be good and it can be bad. Advantage: Gabbert

So what’s this all mean? Gabbert has more physical skill than Henne: Taller, better arm, faster, more athletic. Henne has the edge in intangibles: maturity, leadership, etc. If Gabbert wins the job (and he’s the early favorite to do so) we won’t truly be able to gauge the choice until the season is well underway.

 

 

Jaguars Off-Season Analysis: Quarterbacks

Gabbert Henne Fisch minicamp
Jaguars quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne with offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch (right).

by Cole Pepper

There is no one position that has been under more scrutiny in Jacksonville for the last decade than quarterback.

While that statement may be true for most losing teams (and some winning teams, too), the Jaguars don’t appear to be any closer to knowing if they have the guy or not. That may be good.

It’s roundly agreed that this is Blaine Gabbert’s last chance to prove himself in Jacksonville. Is three years enough time to show if you are a franchise quarterback? Maybe. It’s certainly enough time to show that you aren’t and Gabbert hasn’t shown enough in his first two years to merit the benefit of the doubt. However, his physical skills merit another chance.

He’s being given that chance this year. While everyone says he is competing with Chad Henne for the starting quarterback spot, all indications are that Henne will have to clearly outplay Gabbert to get the job. Both quarterbacks are downplaying the competition and seem to be reading from the same talking points when it comes to their approach.

“The competition brings out the best in all of us,” Gabbert said. “There’s competition every year, whether it’s said or not. You have to earn your pay every day.”

Henne, echoing the same sentiment, and the same approach that is being preached by new head coach Gus Bradley, says he’s using himself as the barometer for improvement.

“I just try to go out there every day and compete against myself, rather than against other quarterbacks who are here,” Henne said. “Just trying to get better everyday, improving on my craft instead of worrying about somebody else.”

The Jaguars have three other quarterbacks in camp. Rookies Matt Scott (Arizona) and Jordan Rodgers (Vanderbilt and the brother of Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers), and recently signed Mike Kafka.

That’s a lot of arms. Bradley said during mini-camp that he wouldn’t rule out taking all five to training camp, but I can’t imagine all five being around for long. It would take away too many snaps from the quarterbacks (especially Gabbert and Henne) who are not only competing for the starting spot, but also learning a new offense.

So why bring in Kafka? Will the Jaguars carry three quarterbacks on the active roster? Not likely. I think its more likely that the Jaguars carry two with a rookie on the practice squad. I’m looking at the competition this way: Gabbert vs. Henne, winner is the starter. If Henne wins, there is a chance that Kafka stays as the backup and the Jaguars move Gabbert. If Gabbert wins, I would suspect that Henne would be the #2, unless Kafka just lights it up in the preseason. The other battle is between the rookies for a practice squad spot, Scott vs. Rodgers. So far, Rodgers has missed time in the off-season with a sports hernia, while Scott has flashed at times, including Wednesday at mini-camp.

With all of the unknowns at quarterback for the Jaguars, we can safely say this: this time next year, the Jaguars will know who their quarterback of the future is. It will either be Gabbert or almost certainly someone they draft next April.