- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter
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Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Jack Del Rio's on everyone's list of coaches on the hot seat. But sit down with him and you realize that he's not spending time pondering that position.
His 2008 Jacksonville Jaguars crumbled, first from injuries, then from locker-room division. Out went vice president of player personnel James "Shack" Harris, and owner Wayne Weaver promoted Gene Smith to general manager, giving him final say over all personnel matters.
Together, Smith and Del Rio combed through the roster, emphasizing character and leadership. In a division with three strong teams that finished ahead of them last year, the Jaguars can improve a lot and still have trouble getting out of last place.
But when they hit tough stretches, the odds that Del Rio's players will continue to hear him, to follow his voice, to give him what he asks, stand to be a lot higher.
"Two years ago we had the best locker room I've ever been around, and then last year it kind of spoiled on us," Del Rio said. "We'll get it back. That's coaching. I've talked to a few coaches and they say, 'Hey, there are years like that. Sometimes it all clicks and you've got a rabbit's foot in your pocket, and some years you have tough sledding.'"
Del Rio's early messages will come in the context of a tougher camp when players hit the field Monday morning. His training camps in years' past haven't been especially difficult, but the reviews this time around might be different as he tries to mold a team loaded with new, young players.
"I think there will be a little more edge to it; that comes with having a rough year," he said. "Do it right, do it light. And we've got some work to do. We've got a young team, we've got a lot that we need to work through. At the same time, we've got some veteran guys we know we've got to take care of.
"If I grind Torry Holt through a camp like I will with the young receivers, then he's not going to have much juice for us when we get out of camp. So we'll be smart about it, but this team needs to work. We've got a team that needs to really get back and resharpen, refocus and have a good, hard, tough camp."
Part of that will come in the form of more double days and more practices during the day in the heat.
During those practices, Smith expects to see Del Rio be more hands on again. Last year's defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, had NFL experience as a head coach. The experiment with Williams failed, and he is now in New Orleans. Mel Tucker, the new defensive coordinator, is younger. And when a head coach is trying to put a team back together, he traditionally gets more involved on the side of the ball he comes from.
Smith said he thought Del Rio removed himself some, and then he saw the coach during a week of Senior Bowl practices.
"We coached in that game and he was having fun again, getting out there, being a teacher," Smith said. "That's probably his greatest asset; he's a very good teacher. I think he's a concise communicator. He can make things that are complex simple in how he verbalizes to the players ...
"There are guys who are good assistants who became head coaches because of the fact they were good teachers as assistants; they were good communicators. And they become a head coach and they quit coaching. And so I think he's a guy that doesn't want to quit coaching. He knows he can have a positive impact on the team and specifically on the defensive side of the ball."
When he took over the Jaguars in 2003, Del Rio brought Mike Smith in as his defensive coordinator. The two had been assistants together on Brian Billick's staff in Baltimore and had a great feel for each other. Del Rio said in time he pulled back to allow Smith more opportunity and exposure, respecting his ability and wanting to help him take the next step, which he did when Smith was hired as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2008.
Two coordinators later, Del Rio said, "I'm just immersed back in it and enjoying it."
Right tackle Tony Pashos said all of the coaches and all of the returning players have vowed to distance themselves from the 2008 disaster.
"Coach is definitely the leader and he sets the tone, but there wasn't much convincing needed," Pashos said. "Because we walked in the door and said 'Let's put that in the rearview mirror and let's go forward and be who we really are.' We came in with a chip on our shoulder and said 'Let's never do that again.'"
This season is an especially big one for Del Rio, much as it is for quarterback David Garrard.
Yes, every coach and player has to prove himself every season. But some of those seasons do more for a guy's reputation, do more to determine he is for real. The Jaguars admitted they'd made some bad choices in the past, they swept out the locker room, they replenished the roster with young guys. Del Rio's signed off on the alterations.
Now can he make them work? Can he set the Jaguars on a course where they show steady improvement?
"I'm not setting out to be different," he said. "I'm going to be myself. But I think I've learned some things and I'm certainly going to apply some of those experiences, some of the things that I've learned and go forward and be better. That's kind of every year. I think in some respect how you hold up and how you remain convicted about the things you believe in and how you handle the struggle, I think that says a lot about you.
"I take pride in trying to be a rock, trying to be somebody that has a firm handle on the rudder of this ship. We went through a storm last year, but I've got my hand on the handle, leading it through. And we'll see it through. We'll come out of this thing in good shape."
Chris Gardner/US Presswire Jack Del Rio plans to be more of a teacher during training camp this season. Posted by ESPN.