Starters put points on the board, backups look sharp for Jaguars in preseason opener

Trevor Lawrence, Gregory Junior among the standouts in Dallas

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, left, celebrates with Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Zay Jones, right, after a two point conversion during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde) (Sam Hodde, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The Jaguars are off and running into their most anticipated season in decades.

Jacksonville’s preseason start against Dallas on Saturday night checked quite a few boxes for coach Doug Pederson and Co.

Trevor Lawrence was poised and confident in the pocket, tossing a touchdown to Christian Kirk and a two-point conversion to Zay Jones before going to the sidelines. Calvin Ridley hauled in both of his targets in his first game action in nearly two years. The backups more than held their own.

There were no injuries of significance, and numerous young players made their case for a spot on the team’s 53-man roster, notably second-year player Gregory Junior.

For the first live game action, it was a start, and a positive one for the Jaguars.

“I guess some good and some bad, obviously. Start with the good, how the offense rebounded and was able to put the ball in the end zone after the special teams play. I think defensively, too, to come away with some takeaways right there,” Pederson said. “I think some of the young guys in the second half, our quarterback, Nate [Rourke], did a nice job of stepping in and making some plays. Just coming up big when we needed those guys to make plays. Overall, a lot of things to clean up but there is some positive that we’ll take a look at and build on.”

It wasn’t the final score that mattered, although the Jaguars left AT&T Stadium with a 28-23 win. It was more about knocking the camp rust off and seeing the development of of younger players in what’s expected to be the most anticipated season in recent Jaguars history. Jacksonville went 9-8 last season, won the AFC South and gave the Super Bowl champion Chiefs everything they could handle in the divisional round before bowing out.

The starting offense

First-round pick Anton Harrison started at right tackle and held up well. He stonewalled Dante Fowler on Lawrence’s touchdown pass to Kirk, stuffing the former Jaguars first-round pick on the rush and giving Lawrence plenty of time to let the route develop.

Lawrence stayed in the pocket and allowed Kirk to slide between the coverage and cut into the end zone for an easy 9-yard touchdown. Lawrence’s next pass was a beautiful high toss to Zay Jones on a two-point conversion, a perfect throw and an even better grab and toe-tap by Jones.

“Whenever there’s points on the board, you want to win these games. Obviously, it doesn’t count for your record in the regular season, but I think just from a morale standpoint for the team, I think it’s good,” Lawrence said. “The last couple years, I think we’ve won only one preseason game. So, it’s nice when you can win these preseason games especially when your depth plays well. I think it gives everybody confidence.”

Lawrence and the regulars were done after that. He wasn’t sacked in limited reps, and finished 5 of 6 for 36 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Lawrence’s second pass of the game was picked off on a ball that was a fraction underthrown to Evan Engram. Ridley was in the vicinity of that interception, too, but didn’t have a play on the ball. Ridley had two catches for 21 yards.

Running back Travis Etienne was sharp, rushing for 22 yards on five carries.

The big plays

Junior, who spent last season the team’s practice squad, has been a hot name in training camp. He was superb in the first half, pouncing on a fumble on a punt return, and then forcing a fumble after a catch by Rico Dowdle at the Jaguars 1. Daniel Thomas recovered it. That’s the type of play that will get the Ouachita Baptist product on the 53-man roster.

“We have a lot of depth. Since I’ve been here, it’s definitely the deepest we’ve been,” Lawrence said. “I would argue at every position, but definitely at receiver. We have a lot of good players. It’s going to be tough when it comes down to the end on who’s getting those last spots. We’ve got a lot of really good players.”

Rookie running back Tank Bigsby had a solid debut, ripping off a 34-yard run that got Jacksonville off its own 12. Two plays later, CJ Beathard hit Jacob Harris on the catch of the game, an acrobatic 42-yarder that took the Jaguars to the Dallas 4. Beathard capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Bigsby led the team in rushing (nine carries, 52 yards).

Speaking of backups, third-string quarterback Nathan Rourke had a 21-yard touchdown pass to Qadree Ollison and a 4-yard touchdown run to bring the Jaguars back from a 16-14 deficit in the second half. Rourke is likely bound for the practice squad, but ran the offense well. His magician-like escape from a sack on his touchdown to Ellison was the play of the night for the Jaguars. Rourke went 9 of 17 passing for 153 yards.

“It was pretty incredible. Toughness, poise in the pocket to be able to make a play like that, and have a couple of guys on him, to make that throw for the touchdown,” Pederson said of Rourke. “I haven’t seen too many plays like that, even in a preseason game.”

The defensive guys

There wasn’t much of a pass rush from Travon Walker or Josh Allen in limited reps, but it was good to see pressure from other spots on the roster. DaVon Hamilton’s strong camp continued against the Cowboys. Hamilton had a sack and a tackle for a loss. Rookie edge Yasir Abdullah and defensive end Jeremiah Ledbetter also had sacks in the opening half for Jacksonville.

Chad Muma got the start at inside linebacker in place of Foye Oluokun, and starting cornerback Tyson Campbell sat out the game, too, as he continues to recover from a concussion. Rookies Christian Braswell had a late game interception for the Jaguars, and linebacker Ventrell Miller had a sack.

The not so good

The Jaguars led 14-0 before the Cowboys managed to get on the scoreboard. That scoring drive shouldn’t have happened. Dallas picked up 13 yards on a third-and-26 situation, and then saw Will Grier hit Malik Davis for 15 yards on fourth down. They converted another fourth down to keep that drive going. And then Grier found Jalen Tolbert for a 17-yard touchdown with 17 seconds before half. Shaquille Quarterman didn’t pick up Tolbert on the play and it led to the easiest touchdown of the night. It was the worst drive of the game for the defense.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.