Hampton Roads will play role if Jaguars rise from doldrums

The Jacksonville Jaguars are our NFL team this season, if by "our" I specifically mean the 757, which I do.

I know our Jags normally don't inspire much of anything except constant rumors about moving to L.A. or someplace. They're an "eh" franchise. Been around since 1995, had four straight playoff seasons in the late '90s, but just two since 2000.

They won their opener last week, though, and here's why they're worth a follow:

Their roster, including the injured reserve list, features two guys from Virginia Beach high schools - Scotty McGee and Terrell Whitehead - who played at James Madison and Norfolk State, respectively.

One from Norfolk and Norfolk State -Don Carey. One from William and Mary - Derek Cox. And one more from Hampton U. - Justin Durant.

If that sounds like a lot of small-school representation, it is. In all, 18 Jaguars played college ball at the Football Championship Subdivision level, which everybody should rightfully call Division I-AA instead of that dumb NCAA-speak.

We're well familiar with I-AA here in the land of the

Colonial Athletic Association and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. And probably more than anyone in the NFL, the Jags are willing to give a I-AA guy an even break.

As Jaguars general manager Gene Smith told me this week, "we scout the player, not the school." And you've got to say that man puts his contracts where his mouth is.

Last spring, four of Jacksonville's six draft picks came from I-AA; no other team drafted more than two. And in '09, Smith took three I-AA prospects, including cornerback Cox in the third round - considered a bold stroke - and Liberty running back Rashad Jennings.

Cox started immediately, Jennings is a second-teamer, and now Smith's latest I-AA finds include sixth-rounder McGee, a return specialist from Ocean Lakes High - he missed the victory over Denver because of a shoulder injury - and Whitehead, a free-agent safety from Kempsville who's on injured reserve.

As for Carey, the cornerback from Booker T. Washington was pounced on last year off Cleveland's waiver list.

That means that, headlined by '09 first-round tackle Eugene Monroe out of the University of Virginia, the Jags have a league-high eight players from state schools. The fact that seven are from I-AA isn't necessarily coincidental.

Smith has to be a bargain-hunter working for financially challenged Jacksonville. Hiring I-AA guys to run up and down the field on special teams is deft. But Smith also has ties with Norfolk State coach Pete Adrian and JMU's Mickey Matthews. Smith values their evaluations of small-school guys, especially their own.

"That's two quality programs, with two quality head coaches, who are looking for some of the same things in players that we are," Smith said.

He and Adrian date back to their college coaching days in Pennsylvania nearly 25 years ago. Smith drops in on Adrian every year, and they regularly discuss I-AA guys who might become proven Jags like Durant, a linebacker, and cornerback Rashean Mathis, whom Adrian coached at Bethune-Cookman.

"There are a couple of others I'm close with too, but every scout has their guys they talk to," Adrian said. "Gene and I have always stayed in touch."

Jacksonville's active roster going into opening day had 16 non-Division I players, six more than anyone else. Only four are listed as starters on this week's unofficial depth chart, but to Adrian, the numbers speak to the ferocity with which Smith and his scouts scour the landscape and the faith in their opinions.

"When there's a I-AA kid they like, that kid will actually be scrutinized more than a No. 2 or 3 pick from Virginia Tech or Miami," Adrian said, "because the big question is can he play at that level?"

The perception, he said, is "teams don't want to waste a pick on Norfolk State when they could have taken a kid from Virginia Tech."

That's interesting, especially considering the Jags have no one from Virginia Tech. But they do have Maine, Massachusetts, South Dakota, Central Arkansas and Northern Iowa covered, to say nothing of the corner of Park and Corprew Avenues.  Don't forget TE Mike Caussin, a JMU Duke and Springfield, VA native. After getting an undrafted free agent contract, he was able to make the Jags practice squad.

Tom Robinson, (757) 446-2518 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (757) 446-2518      end_of_the_skype_highlighting,

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