JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Wide receiver Ace Sanders didn’t score a touchdown Saturday night in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ intrasquad scrimmage at EverBank Field. And because no tackling was allowed on punt returns, the excitement he generated in that area was a bit misleading.
But on a night when quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne were effective but hardly scintillating, it was the fourth-round draft pick out of South Carolina who might have stood out more than anyone.
“He’s a little guy that plays big,” said Gabbert, who completed two passes to Sanders on the opening drive. “He’s getting better every day, and that’s all you can ask from a rookie like that.”
The touchdowns didn’t come until the later part of the hour-long proceedings, with Gabbert finding offseason free-agent signing Mohamed Massaquoi on a 12-yard play and backup tight end Brett Brackett from a yard out. Those plays didn’t diminish the three catches made by Sanders in the early going or the sure hands he displayed gathering in a pair of punts.
“Every day I just come in here and try to get better and better so when the lights come on, you just want to go out and make plays and do what we know how to do,” he said.
Sanders, Massaquoi and Mike Brown are considered the leading candidates for the starting position held a year ago by 2012 first-round choice Justin Blackmon. Not only has Blackmon been unable to practice in the past week after recently undergoing groin surgery, but the NFL has also suspended him for the first four regular-season games for violating its substance abuse policy.
Massaquoi was a non-factor until Gabbert’s scoring strike, and Brown didn’t quite live up to all the praise that new coach Gus Bradley has been heaping on him. So give the early advantage to Sanders, who admitted to being almost too pumped up before a crowd estimated at 19,000.
“Sometimes you’ve got to calm yourself down,” he said. “Other than that, it’s just like another practice. That’s how we treated it.”
“He’s really a competitor,” Bradley said. “He showcased that tonight.”
Gabbert completed his first four passes but ended by misfiring on three in a row during his one opportunity running the two-minute drill. Henne faced near-constant pass pressure — he would have been sacked five times if statistics were officially kept — but was able to team up with tight end Marcedes Lewis on a 2-yard score. Lewis lined up wide and used his six-inch height advantage on rookie safety Josh Evans to the fullest.
Gabbert completed seven of his 15 attempts, while Henne was 7 of 13. Neither of them threw an interception, although rookie cornerback Dwayne Gratz came close to picking off a pass by Gabbert for what would have been a sure touchdown.
“Obviously there were some screw-ups,” Henne said. “But overall, I thought we did some good things. And there are some things to learn from.”
Given that Gabbert had sprained his right ankle Monday during practice when he was accidentally kicked by guard Uche Nwaneri, he was thrilled simply to be on the field without any restrictions.
“Of course we’ll look at the film and evaluate it,” Gabbert said. “But I felt great out here. There’s always going to be things for me to correct and tighten up on.”
The ban on tackling made it difficult to evaluate the Jaguars’ running game. Maurice Jones-Drew had a handful of carries, and with Justin Forsett unavailable because of a toe injury, most of the remaining touches went to Jordan Todman and Lonnie Pryor. Rookie Denard Robinson had one carry and was the intended receiver on an incompletion, although the “offensive weapon” showed flashes of his big-play potential on a kickoff return.
While Sanders claimed to treat the scrimmage just like any other practice, there were enough missed assignments on a young squad to give Bradley cause for concern going into next Friday night’s preseason opener against the Miami Dolphins.
“It shouldn’t be any different,” he said. “They should come out here and try to execute the same way. What happens is they come out here and the crowd’s there and they get in this environment. Then they try too hard. That’s when mistakes happen. And I’m sure, for some, that did happen.”