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Heath Farwell: Jaguars ‘looking at everything’ on special teams

Jaguars’ special teams coordinator Heath Farwell addresses the media ahead of Day 8 of training camp

Jacksonville Jaguars Offseason Workout Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Vince Lombardi once said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” That appears to be the mantra of the Jaguars' special teams coaching staff in training camp, as they look to find any edge possible for this unit in 2023. And it’s not just the coaches either - facing the media on Thursday, coordinator Heath Farwell was impressed with how many guys on the roster have made special teams a priority this offseason:

“I have a ton of guys. Every evening, every morning, 10 to 15 guys show up. Asking for more coaching, any details they can get… ...It’s perfect - we love it. We encourage them to come up, because in meetings it’s tough. I can only get to so many things, so many reps. So if they come up for more details they can improve - and they have. So we’re excited to have a good turnout at our office.”

When asked who in particular was in his office a lot, it was unsurprising to learn a few rookies had been eager. Often the key to a roster spot, smart first-year players will look to offer value in any way they can. Farwell was impressed with a pair of defensive backs:

“Guys that show up a ton? Antonio Johnson. He’s a guy that’s been spectacular. You see him out there playing defense, but he’s been great for us as a gunner, vise stuff he’s been really good, kickoff he’s been doing well. But there’s a bunch of guys. Latavious Brini has come up every day. It’s a great chance to visit with them, get to know them a little bit better, but also teach them a thing or two about special teams. A lot of these guys hadn’t played a ton in their college careers, so it’s a great opportunity to work one on one and get those finer details on special teams.”

Rookies looking for work

Farwell was effusive in his praise for both Johnson and Brini - both in their efforts to learn and their application on the training field. Johnson, a fifth-round draft pick from Texas A&M, was clearly the person who has stood out to the coaching staff the most on Wednesday, but he wasn’t the only one mentioned:

“Like I said, Antonio Johnson has been fantastic. He’s kinda separated himself. Latavious Brini has done a good job as a young undrafted guy. We’ve had a bunch of good players who have stepped up. Eric Hallett has done a great job - he’s most improved compared to what he did for us in the Spring, which is a great sign… …and then Christian Braswell has done a good job for us too. Doesn’t have the size that say Antonio has, but the toughness, the quickness he does have. Those are the guys that stood out most for me.”

The Jaguars special teams units last year were anything but a liability. They finished 11th in the NFL in kickoff return average, and had two of the league’s top five tacklers in coverage (Andrew Wingard, Caleb Johnson). Despite that, the team has actively sought to improve across the board. Brandon McManus was added in the offseason, which according to Farwell has given some finality at the kicker position - allowing him to focus his attention elsewhere:

“It’s a great feeling. Last season we had gone through a bunch of kickers. The fact we’re at this point and we’re stacked at all the positions, it’s a great feeling as a coach. And it allows me to let them do what they do to a high level, and I can worry more about the core guys, coverage units, kick return game, punt return. I can emphasize more of that and less about the veteran specialists that we have.”

Since Doug Pederson became head coach last offseason, the environment and culture in Jacksonville have been carefully nurtured and prioritized. Unsurprisingly, it now permeates the roster - with no better evidence of this an enthusiasm from veterans to participate in special teams.

Two names singled out by Farwell were Tim Jones and Andre Cisco; Jones has added more muscle to his frame this year, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed - Farwell referred to him as a “a big strong receiver who translates well to special teams, and he cares about it.”. Meanwhile, Cisco, who hasn’t contributed as a returner before, received praise for his willingness to embrace a new challenge:

“He’s been great. This offseason he came to me and said “coach, I’d love to be a returner and be back there with those guys”. No problem - he did it. He started out just learning the position, and if you guys have been watching some of the practices, he’s been great. He catches them clean, he’s smooth and reliable, smart and tough. He’s a guy who can compete to be that emergency guy. We love him - he’s a great teammate, he wants to win, [always asking] “how can I help?”. He knows Jamal’s there, but he believed this is something he could do and help out the team. And he’s done a great job. He’s learning every day and it’s been really cool to work with him on it.”

Adding depth with competition

Backing up Jamal Agnew seems to be a priority for Farwell, who appreciates his growing role on offense and the risk of him not being available. Another rookie might be making a case to be considered as Agnew’s understudy:

“Parker Washington; he’s a natural fielder back there. He’s got some natural quickness to get out of his break. He’s done a really good job as a returner. And that’s something I’ve talked to him about - Jamal Agnew is there and he is an elite returner. But Jamal has also missed a few games in his career. So you’ve got to make sure you’re ready to go, and you’ve got to prove to us throughout preseason training and games that you’re the guy to step up.”

“Christian Kirk did it last year - would love not to use Christian. As good as he is, I don’t want him out there - as a team, an organization, we don’t really want him out there. Would love for a guy like Parker to be able to do that. And I think he has the skills to do it, but it’s all part of the evaluation - can he do it in the preseason [games], what’s it look like off a punter’s foot, under the lights?”

With so many players on the roster vying for reps on special teams, it’s fair to wonder how Farwell and his staff will manage reps for them all - both in practice and during preseason games. The special teams coach didn’t shy away from the challenge of working out who are the best guys to send out there:

“The biggest thing for a coach when it comes to the veterans - we still have to evaluate them on what they have done this year. A coach once told me ‘you have to evaluate what a guy can do for you today’. And you can’t get caught up in what he’s done for you in the past; you have to make sure he’s still doing that same thing.”

“So that’s a part of it, but the other part is we have to get these rookies a bunch of reps. It’s hard enough to do it in practice, so they’ve gotta do it in the [preseason] games when the lights are on and the pressure is really on. Can they execute, when getting tired playing in the fourth quarter, playing offense and defense, and I’m telling them to run down on a kickoff. So it’s kind of a mixed bag - figuring out the old vets and are they still as good as they have been for us, and then can the young guys compete with them?”

Optimism runs high in Duval County, and that goes as far as special teams too. But ultimately, there are only 53 spots on a roster. Separating themselves from their teammates will determine whether some of these guys have a job or not come September - and for Farwell, there’s only one way to identify who is worthy of being on this unit:

“A lot of positions we put them in, it’s to compete. It’s all part of the progression, the build up - not only for the stadium practice on Saturday, but going into that Dallas game. So we get a bunch of looks at them throughout practice in the competition. And we tell them that; we are competing, looking at both sides of the ball. This isn’t a scouting rep… we’re looking at everything. Putting guys in positions and certain matchups we wanna see - it’s all part of the evaluation.”