JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon hasn’t started a game in nearly two years, a frustrating stretch that forced him to work harder and be more patient.
He always felt like he would get another shot. He didn’t expect it to be this week.
But with Leonard Fournette missing practice because of a strained right hamstring, Yeldon is getting the majority of practice repetitions and preparing to carry the load Sunday against the New England Patriots (1-0).
“Whenever my number is called, I’ll always be ready to get into a rhythm and go,” Yeldon said. “I really don’t have a problem with that.”
While many outsiders believe there’s a huge drop-off from Fournette to Yeldon, the Jaguars (1-0) insist there’s only a marginal difference between the two. It’s a big reason the old-school, run-first team kept only three running backs — Fournette, Yeldon and change-of-pace speedster Corey Grant — on the 53-man roster.
Fournette tweaked his hamstring in the first half of Jacksonville’s season opener at the New York Giants . He sat out practice Wednesday, and coach Doug Marrone said the plan is for him to do the same Thursday.
Marrone said Fournette will go through tests Friday to see whether he’s able to play in a rematch of the AFC championship game.
Jacksonville is likely to be cautious with Fournette, the centerpiece of the team’s offense. The fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, Fournette ran for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns last season. He also caught 36 passes for 302 yards and a score.
Fournette ran nine times for 41 yards against the Giants. Yeldon had 51 yards on 14 carries and caught three passes for 18 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown late in the second quarter.
Marrone praised Yeldon for the strides he’s made.
“He has always been good,” Marrone said. “I think he is more explosive. He’s stronger. He’s elusive. I think he can carry a load of carries. I just think he has done a nice job. I really do.”
Yeldon has reason to take advantage of his opportunities. A second-round pick from Alabama in 2015, Yeldon is in the final year of his $5.9 million rookie contract.
Jacksonville is prepared to lose Yeldon in 2019 free agency, believing another team will be able to offer him a starting job or at least more carries.
Yeldon said he’s “not too much worried about that,” adding “it’ll play itself out.” But he’s clearly planning for the future. He dropped weight in the offseason, getting below 220 pounds for the first time since his college days, and hopes to show he’s a three-down back.
“I feel better, lighter, quicker, faster, more explosive,” he said. “I feel like it makes a big difference. I can cut better. I’m doing a lot of things better. I feel more comfortable this way.”
The Jaguars hope it shows on the field. With Fournette uncertain to play, Yeldon could end up in a featured role.
It’s a spot he didn’t expect. It’s also a position coaches and teammates say he can handle and prove to doubters there’s not much of a dip from Fournette.
“That’s their fault,” receiver Keelan Cole said. “That’s on them. If they want to think that, just tell them to tune into the game.”
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