JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Brian Thomas Jr. and Maason Smith won’t have to search very hard to find a familiar face in Jacksonville.

The former LSU teammates are reuniting 600 miles east of Baton Rouge after the Jaguars selected them in consecutive rounds of the NFL draft, receiver Thomas in the first (23rd overall) and defensive tackle Smith in the second (No. 48).

It was the third time in franchise history — second in four years — that Jacksonville chose college teammates in the opening two rounds.

“Just being able to be around him is definitely going to make my transition a little bit easier knowing that I got a brother with me already,” Smith said.

The previous combinations worked out about as well as anyone could have expected: tight end Marcedes Lewis and running back Maurice Jones-Drew reunited in 2006 after playing together at UCLA; and quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne in 2021 after starring at Clemson.

The Jags can only hope Thomas and Smith deliver like the previous duos. Lewis owns the team record for receptions by a tight end. MJD ranks second behind Hall of Fame finalist Fred Taylor in career rushing yards. Lawrence has given Jacksonville its first franchise quarterback since Mark Brunell. And Etienne is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

The Jaguars drafted a third player from LSU in the fourth round Sunday, landing defensive tackle Jordan Jefferson with the 116th overall pick.

It’s no coincidence that Jacksonville went heavy from the Southeastern Conference powerhouse considering coach Doug Pederson hired former LSU defensive coordinator Matt House as linebackers coach in January.

“They are getting two dominant dogs,” Jefferson said of LSU’s former D-tackle duo. “They are getting two guys that are going to cause disruption not only in the run game but also the pass game.”

TURNING POINT?

The mini college reunion could help Jacksonville return to the top of the AFC South. The Jaguars lost five of their final six games last season and missed the playoffs after starting 8-3 and sitting atop the division for months.

The late-season collapse kickstarted a less-than-ideal run for the small-market franchise:

— A former financial manager pleaded guilty in mid-December to stealing more than $22 million from the NFL franchise through its virtual credit card program. He was later sentenced to 78 months in federal prison.

— Coach Doug Pederson fired 10 assistants a day after the season ended, including defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell. The Jaguars allowed 29.2 points a game in their five losses in December and January, so Pederson cleaned house on that side of the ball.

— Most recently, the city of Jacksonville declined to even consider the Jaguars’ proposed $2 billion redevelopment project that includes a “stadium of the future” and significant upgrades to the surrounding area. The city wants to focus solely on renovating the stadium, which could cost up to $1.4 billion. Negotiations are ongoing.

BUMP IN THE ROAD

The draft was supposed to be a chance to get the attention back on the team. But it included a hiccup.

Jaguars executive Tony Khan, the son of team owner Shad Khan, inserted himself and his dad into an All-Elite Wrestling skit that aired Wednesday night and then faked an injury that lingered into the draft as NFL Films followed him around for days.

Tony Khan, who owns AEW with his father, even appeared on NFL Network wearing a neck brace.

That story line and the others will eventually fade, and the focus will return to the field — and the latest draft class.

DEFENSIVE PUSH

With Ryan Nielsen taking over as defensive coordinator and switching to a 4-3 scheme, the Jacksonville used four of its first six picks on defenders. Along with the LSU duo, general manager Trent Baalke chose Florida State cornerback Jarrian Jones in the third round and Mississippi cornerback Deantre Prince in the fifth.

Six of Jacksonville’s nine picks hail from the SEC.

“I got to say: SEC is the best,” Prince said. “That’s what I was learning coming out of high school. I wanted to play with the best of the best, so SEC is the place to go to play with the best of the best and compete against the best of the best.

“I feel like we have a very high competitive level, very high confidence as well.”

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