Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 9/5/12
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. The words rolled off of Maurice Jones-Drew's tongue so easily, one could almost expect the situation to unfold. "I expect to start," said Jones-Drew, the league-leading rusher from last season who ended his 38-day holdout Sunday and has to prove to new Jacksonville Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey he's ready for this weekend's regular-season opener at Minnesota. As easily the words came out, Jones-Drew understands he has to persuade his new coach he can be a vital part of the team's offense as soon as Sunday. For Jones-Drew, who rushed for 1,606 yards last season, the expectation of being a starter is more about his frame of mind in his first week of practice. He's more than a month behind his teammates in learning a new offense. Because of the timing, Mularkey has said backup Rashad Jennings will start against the Vikings and Jones-Drew will spell him for an occasional series and serve as the third-down back. Jones-Drew knows it will be Mularkey's decision, but he's preparing the same way he did last year when he started all 16 games and led the league with 343 carries. "No, what I'm saying is when I say I expect it, that's my mindset going in," Jones-Drew said when asked Wednesday by Minnesota reporters if he thinks he can show Mularkey enough to start Sunday. "So, I'm going to prepare as if I'm the starter. I'm not going to prepare as whatever was said. I don't even know what was said. With that, I'm going to prepare as if I'm the starter. That's how my mindset is. I know Rashad was the same when he was backing me up. Obviously the role is turned, but I'm going to continue to prepare as if I'm the starter." Jones-Drew was the last, and most high-profile, player to return to camp this season, ending a messy squabble about his contract, which pays him far less than several backs despite his consistent top-level production. He skipped the team's entire offseason workouts before returning Sunday without a new contract. He's due to make 4.45 million in 2012 and 4.95 million next year, well behind the likes of contracts given to Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Tennessee's Chris Johnson, who held out last season. Holdouts have effected other running backs, such as Johnson last season when he had a career-low 4.0 yards-per-carry average. Jones-Drew pointed out that former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith and current St. Louis Rams starter Steven Jackson returned and had success and that he isn't worried about the effects of his layoff. Jones-Drew refused to talk specifically about his holdout Wednesday, saying he answered all the contract-related questions in his return press conference Sunday. He's looking only at the positive aspects of his return. "For me, I know I'm back to 100 percent, where last year I wasn't," Jones-Drew said. "I missed pretty much all of preseason last year, came back, and I think I did pretty well. So, I just want to continue to come back, work. I'm 100 percent now. Obviously I'm learning a new offense, but the offense is very player-friendly. I'm just ready to roll." Mularkey said Jones-Drew looked good Monday in his first practice. The coach said every time he sees Jones-Drew around the facility, even passing him in the hallway, he's quizzing the back on the offense to test his readiness. "I'm firing things at him left and right that may occur in the game," Mularkey said. "I know he'd like to; I think he thinks could start and play the whole game. I wouldn't do that to him. I'm not sure about that. I have to have a couple more practices here to see where he is physically, conditioning-wise." Mularkey even kept the door open for a bigger workload as Jones-Drew proves himself in practice this week. The Jaguars were planning a full-padded practice Wednesday on a warm day, the perfect test for Jones-Drew's conditioning. Mularkey and Jones-Drew both said taking contact for the first time will be an adjustment. "You've got to get your body used to that as well," Mularkey said. "His playing time will all be based on the next three days of practice, how he comes out of these practices." The Vikings know how difficult it will be for Mularkey to keep Jones-Drew out of the lineup this week if he proves himself ready. "They said third downs, right?," linebacker Chad Greenway asked. "Yeah, believe that one. I can't imagine. He's a huge part of their offense, led the league in rushing last year, so we'll be real honest with ourselves here. If he'd have come back on Wednesday or Thursday, we feel like he would have gotten more touches than just that. I doubt they're going to try and make a point with him when it comes to the regular season. So, we expect him to see him a lot." Jones-Drew is hoping for the same. The question now is how influential he can be on Mularkey. "I feel like, honestly, if it was up to me, I would like to take every carry," Jones-Drew said. "It's not up to me. Rashad's been doing great. Obviously he's been in the offense a couple months longer than I have, so he understands the ins and outs of it. I've been doing extensive studying from Sunday until today. It's going to be a tough task. I'm learning the offense and studying the Vikings at the same time. But it's coming along well, and I just want to continue to keep working that way." Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.
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