JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Luke Joeckel never much cared for all the attention which came his way at this time last year after being the second-overall pick in the NFL draft.
He disliked having to miss the Jacksonville Jaguars’ final 11 games because of a fractured right ankle even more.
So while most of the fan attention Thursday at the first organized team activity open to the public seemed to center on Blake Bortles and this year’s crop of rookies, Joeckel is happy to stay out of the spotlight and happier to be contributing to what the Jaguars hope will be an improved offensive line.
"I feel like I’m over the hump," he said, referring to the season-ending injury he suffered Oct. 6 in a game at St. Louis. "It’s all really small stuff now that I’m thinking about. I spent the whole offseason down here rehabbing and training. And I can’t remember which month it was, but I remember a time where I went out on the field one day and I didn’t feel great and the next day it felt like I had just flipped. I started moving way better and getting back at it."
Joeckel has been working exclusively at left tackle all week. That was the position he played during his college years at Texas A&M, although his first four starts with the Jaguars came at right tackle before they traded Eugene Monroe to the Baltimore Ravens.
To say the offense struggled during those games would be an understatement. The Jaguars managed a total of three touchdowns, all in the second halves of contests where the outcome had been decided, while going back and forth between Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne at quarterback.
By the time Joeckel needed to be carted off the field after having his ankle rolled up on, he said he felt drained from the non-stop activity dating back to the draft combine which took place two months before the Jaguars chose him. Despite not putting in a full season, he doesn’t regard 2014 as a continuation of his rookie year.
"I don’t have to go through that this year," he said. "I’m just focused on football and focused on getting back, getting stronger. And I’m going into it with more confidence. And I’m back on the left side, which is awesome. I’m excited about that too."
Henne, who started all 11 games that Joeckel missed and is expected to remain the starter while Bortles makes the adjustment to the NFL, was sacked a total of 38 times in 2013. He knows how important a healthy Joeckel can be to his own well-being.
"He’s done a great job in the offseason with his body, getting stronger," Henne said. "He’s a little bit more physical up there. He’s an athletic tackle. He can pass block, and he can get off the ball and run block. Obviously there are things he can work on, but so far from what I see, he’s done a good job."
Joeckel underwent surgery three days after the injury and got his cast taken off in December as the Jaguars were winding down a season in which they ranked near the bottom of the league in most major offensive categories.
"I’m still trying to get the confidence and just the power and explosion off that leg," he said. "But I’m feeling great. I feel like I’m really moving, and I feel like I’m playing faster off the football."
In addition to Monroe, three other members of the line with whom Joeckel began last season are gone. Center Brad Meester retired after a 14-year career, while guards Will Rackley and Uche Nwaneri are both no longer around.
When the free-agent signing period began in March, the first move made by the Jaguars was bringing in guard Zane Beadles from the Denver Broncos to play alongside Joeckel on the left side.
"I heard about him a little bit before he came here from watching Denver tape and that kind of stuff," he said. "Now watching him play next to me and how he communicates is just a huge help to our offensive line. He’s kind of the leader of the group right now. He’s stepped up and shown us how things are done."
Mike Brewster, who fractured an ankle late in the season, is likely to take over Meester’s spot, with Jacques McClendon the probable starter at right guard and Austin Pasztor at right tackle.
"We’ve got a good group this year," Joeckel said. "It’s a young group with not a lot of experience. But (coach) Gus (Bradley) was telling me about a week ago that we’re in a race to get experience. It’s not about how many games and all that kind of stuff. It’s about how well we work together, how our comfort level (is) and how we jell together. We’re working on that every single day."
And while Bortles endures the scrutiny of fans and the press, Joeckel is content to work on getting better in relative anonymity.
"He’s got it a lot worse than I do," he said. "I’m not a big media guy, but he’s a quarterback. So he’s got to live with it for the rest of his career."