JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — If Jacksonville Jaguars coach Gus Bradley was looking for a sign from the heavens to indicate whether Luke Joeckel was ready to return to practice for the first time in almost two weeks, this wasn’t what he had in mind.
Lightning in the area Thursday morning forced the Jaguars to move their final workout before their third of four preseason games to an area under the south end zone stands of EverBank Field that had a noticeable fishy aroma. At least Joeckel, the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft four months ago, was able to take some snaps with the first-string offense while walking through a wooden surface amidst such non-motivational sayings as Ben Franklin’s observation that “guests, like fish, begin to smell after 3 days.”
But Bradley said it will be a game time decision as to whether the 6-foot-6, 306-pound tackle out of Texas A&M is able to go Saturday night against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Joeckel sustained a hip flexor injury Aug. 3 during a scrimmage held by the Jaguars. Although he practiced the entire following week leading up to the preseason opener against the Miami Dolphins, the injury got worse during that time. Wednesday marked the first time he was cleared to put pads on since that game, which must have felt like an eternity to someone who missed practice only twice during his three years as an Aggie.
“It’s something I never had to deal with before,” he said. “I always stayed healthy in college. And having these muscle strains, you feel like you shouldn’t be out because it’s not like a bone is sticking out or anything like that. That’s what I grew up thinking. But it’s something I wanted to take care of and get better before the season started.”
The Jaguars already knew they would be without Blaine Gabbert, whom Bradley named as their starting quarterback for the regular-season opener Sept. 8 despite a hairline fracture to his right thumb suffered last week in a loss to the New York Jets. Tight end Marcedes Lewis (calf) and backup running back Justin Forsett (toe) have also been ruled out against the Eagles.
But if Joeckel can rejoin an offense that will have wide receiver Cecil Shorts III in uniform for the first time this preseason, it should give the coaching staff and fans a more accurate gauge on how to judge Chad Henne’s performance that should last at least one half.
“As a young player, as many reps as I can get is going to be great for me,” Joeckel said. “This (injury) was a little bit of a setback, but I don’t think it will affect me too much. As long as I take play reps in practice these next few weeks and get two preseason games underneath my belt, I think I’ll be mentally ready and physically ready by that first game.”
“He’s not going to be playing as much as the first group,” Bradley said. “But we would like to see him play.”
Henne has twice led the Jaguars on drives of 13 plays or more that ended with field goals by Josh Scobee after taking over for Gabbert in the second quarter. He has yet to get them into the end zone, although this will be the first time he’ll get to work in game situations with Shorts, Justin Blackmon and running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
“Our objective is just to score points,” Henne said. “In the last couple of games, we didn’t score enough points. So hopefully we can get it rolling.”
Shorts had 55 receptions for 979 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago despite not making his first start until the sixth game of the season at Oakland. That was the same game in which Jones-Drew suffered a foot injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the year.
“I’m just happy we’re all out there together,” Shorts said. “And I think it’s going to be a sight to see.”
Bradley said he plans to have Mike Kafka relieve Henne sometime during the third quarter and then finish up with rookie Matt Scott at quarterback. Kafka and Scott combined to go only 1 of 7 for minus-4 yards against the Jets as the Jaguars managed only two first downs and 55 total yards in the second half.
Although the offense will bear close scrutiny, with or without Joeckel, the game should also serve as a barometer of how well-prepared the Jaguars are on defense to handle the uptempo style of attack that new Eagles coach Chip Kelly has brought with him from his time at Oregon.
“You won’t see anything crazy from us,” Bradley said. “But it’s a great introduction to our defense on how we’re going to go about defending the read option.”