Toby Gerhart eager for his chance to start for Jaguars

Toby Gerhart has averaged 4.7 yards per carry over the past four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The only way the Jacksonville Jaguars’ passing of the torch at running back could have been more symbolic was if they gave Toby Gerhart the same locker Maurice Jones-Drew had.

When the Jaguars began their voluntary offseason conditioning program this week, much of the attention centered on Gerhart, who averaged only 69 carries and caught a total of 77 passes over a four-year span with the Minnesota Vikings. Jones-Drew had 234 rushing attempts and 43 receptions in what turned out to be the last of his eight seasons with the Jaguars, who made no effort to stop him from joining the Oakland Raiders last month.

Standing five inches taller and weighing about 20 pounds heavier than Jones-Drew, Gerhart is eager to demonstrate on a steadier basis the skills that made him a second-round pick out of Stanford in the 2010 draft.

"You’ve got to prepare for it," he said. "I know it’s going to be different after that first game, after hopefully 15, 20 carries and waking up and being super sore again, which hasn’t happened in four years. But I’m excited about that. I’m ready to make an impact."

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Gerhart’s limited use with the Vikings was due to them having perhaps the NFL’s premier running back in Adrian Peterson. He remembers being caught off guard on draft day when the Vikings called him after Peterson was coming off an 18-touchdown season, a career high that still stands.

"When I got the phone call and it was Minnesota on the phone, I was like, ‘Wait. What? Minnesota?’ " he said. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected them."

The Jaguars’ interest in him after last season ended did not come from so far out of the blue. But if anyone had been the face of a largely faceless franchise in recent years, it was Jones-Drew, who ran for 8,071 yards and 68 touchdowns to place him behind only Fred Taylor on its all-time rushing list.

"Growing up in Cleveland and not knowing a lot about the Jaguars, all you knew was Maurice Jones-Drew," wide receiver Cecil Shorts III said. "So it’s going to be different. We’ll miss his presence, his leadership on and off the field, just him being around. He’s a good friend, a good teammate."

"Toby comes in, and he’ll be No. 1 on the depth chart," coach Gus Bradley said. "But he also knows that there’s competition, and they’re competing to see how that all plays out. We want to keep that open."

The stiffest competition is expected to come from Jordan Todman, who was Gerhart’s teammate with the Vikings for most of the 2011 season. Todman gained 109 yards on 25 carries last December against the Buffalo Bills in the one game Jones-Drew missed, but his total of 76 carries and 14 catches make him as much of an unknown quantity over the long haul as his former and current teammate.

"I’ve come in here with the same mindset of grinding and working hard and knowing nothing is guaranteed," Todman said. "It’s cool just to be back and to get going again and see the new faces in the locker room."

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Gerhart was one of 10 free agents signed by the Jaguars, who have the No. 3 overall selection in next month’s draft.

"It’s even cooler when you know the person and you have a relationship, a friendship with him," Todman said. "I knew his ability, and I thought it was a great pickup."

"This is a unique locker room," said Gerhart, who turned 27 last month. "I’ve been here two days, and everybody has come up and introduced themselves. I’m kind of a shy guy. So there’s an excitement, there’s a buzz."

While his 36 rushing attempts a year ago were the fewest in his career, one of them was good for a 41-yard touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens. He also had gain of 67 yards during the 2011 season.

"I got that experience, got comfortable with the speed of the game but don’t have the wear and tear on my body that someone who’s spent four years carrying the ball 250 times a year has," he said.

With Peterson no longer looking over his shoulder and Jones-Drew no longer in a Jaguars uniform, only injuries would be preventing Gerhart from a return to the workload he shouldered during his college years.

"I’m fired up about that," he said. "It’s definitely an opportunity that I’m going to relish. Yeah, there’s pressure, but at the same time, I’m excited and ready for it."

You can follow Ken Hornack on Twitter @HornackFSFla or email him at khornack32176@gmail.com.