Jaguars' Keelan Cole chalks up tough 2018 as learning experience

The Jaguars lost confidence in Keelan Cole last season, and he looks to make the most of a fresh start with Nick Foles at quarterback. Douglas DeFelice/USA TODAY Sports

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Keelan Cole doesn’t want to talk about bouncing back after a disappointing 2018 season.

The third-year Jacksonville Jaguars receiver is more concerned with what he learned through his -- and the offense’s -- struggles. He believes there’s no way he could go through anything as tough, so he looks at his issues last season as an opportunity for growth.

“It’s just all about how you really bounce back from the bad things,” Cole said. “Not even bounce back, just learning. You don’t really bounce down when something bad happens. It’s just a bump in the road. You’ve just got to go over it. It’s more like going up.”

Based on what’s happened throughout OTAs, Cole has clearly learned a lot and is definitely headed up. The Jaguars’ receivers have been the most impressive position group and Cole is atop the list. The addition of Nick Foles has obviously helped, but Cole has regularly gotten behind coverages and hauled in several deep passes.

Most importantly, he hasn’t dropped a pass in 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 drills.

That was Cole’s biggest issue in 2018. After a good start in the first month (17 catches for 225 yards and 1 touchdown), which included a one-handed catch along the sideline against New England, Cole dropped five passes and lost two fumbles in October. That got him benched, and Cole had just two targets and didn’t catch a pass in November.

It was definitely a humbling experience for a player who led the Jaguars in receiving yards as an undrafted rookie in 2017. Cole had only four fewer catches (38) in 2018, but his yardage and per-catch average dropped drastically -- from 748 to 491 and 17.8 to 12.9.

Part of that was due to the fact that the Jaguars’ quarterback play was pretty bad. Blake Bortles got benched for Cody Kessler in December, though he regained the job for the season finale. The Jaguars scored just two offensive touchdowns in the final five games.

But Coles’ struggles also had to do with him adjusting to a much more important role in the offense. When Allen Robinson was lost after the 2017 season opener with a torn ACL, Marqise Lee became the Jaguars’ top receiver and Allen Hurns, when he was healthy (he missed six games with a high ankle sprain), was the No. 2. Instead of being the fourth receiver and easing into the rotation, Cole was on the field much more than the Jaguars had planned. When Lee suffered a season-ending knee injury last August, it put even more pressure on Cole.

“The big thing for me for Keelan was Marqise [Lee] got hurt,” receivers coach Keenan McCardell said. “He had to step full-fledge into a starting role and that can weigh a lot on a second-year guy that hasn’t really had that experience of being a starter. It comes with the territory, those ups and downs. Now that he’s had that down, now let’s come back up and let’s prove to people that you belong here, you know you belong here. Now let’s show everybody that you belong here.”

Coach Doug Marrone and McCardell said last season’s rough patch that was something Cole had to experience himself, but he was the only one that could solve it. They’re encouraged at how much he has grown.

“Anytime you see a player that is doing everything that you want and that you are asking and struggling, it’s tough,” Marrone said. “There are a lot of people that usually come into play with that. The first people that are going to help you are the guys that you are with in that room. … I’m talking about that receiver room or whatever room you may be in. Then, the position coach is the one. Then the coordinator. Then the head coach. All of a sudden, eventually somebody in the locker room is going to get involved.

“At the end of the day, that player really has to get himself out of it. You are going to give him all the tips and everything you can do, but our job as a coach is to give that player the opportunities to go at it. If you do it, he has to take advantage of it.”

So far this spring, it looks like Cole has.