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Special Teams Set to Turn ??? into !!!

Posted Aug 19, 2010

Last week one of the Sirius NFL Radio talking heads was, well, not exactly ripping the Jets' special teams but perhaps applying some healthy skepticism to what kind of impact those teams can have on this most important of Jets seasons.

"I know what Brad Smith can do, I know what Eric Smith can do," said the host, "but I don't know what all these other guys can do."

Yet there are a few reasons that the Jets, despite losing key players from last year's specials in flyer Wallace Wright, snapper James Dearth and kicker Jay Feely, will be just fine. One of those reasons was on display Wednesday night in the person of one of the stars of "Hard Knocks," Episode 2 — special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff.

"As a unit I think we have a lot of confidence in ourselves because we have Mike," Eric Smith told newyorkjets.com recently. "It's hard not to have confidence in yourself when you have a coach who has the kind of record he does. He always has special teams in the top five in the league and he makes sure you know that. If we take what he gives us and try to implement it the best we can, we feel we'll be successful."

A great example of that played out on Hard Knocks, when Westhoff and company planned out a punt rush against the Giants in the preseason opener, then E. Smith executed it perfectly with a rejection of Matt Dodge's punt. Cut to Westhoff on the sideline, shaking his fist in satisfaction of a play well-called and -executed.

But besides the brilliance and preparation of "Coach Westy," there are the players on the squad whom the radio host glossed over, some Jets vets and some new to the green and white. Some of the returnees are James Ihedigbo, last season's leading ST tackler, Jamaal Westerman, Drew Coleman and Marquice Cole.

And one newcomer appears ready to convince opposing specialists to utter words of resignation such as "I need a vacation." John "The Terminator" Conner was asked whether he took more enjoyment out of a crushing block on offense or a major hit on special teams.

"Oh, man, I don't know ... I like them both," Conner said. "I like just helping the team out and seeing that I did something that helped us get a touchdown or have success."

Head coach Rex Ryan already noted that the heavy hitter from Kentucky "knocked three guys on their back and even had one on a kickoff" against the Giants. Conner started on three special teams in college and he's played a little bit of all six teams with the Jets, with primary emphasis on kickoff return and punt coverage.

As for the returners, the Jets appear well-stocked with Brad Smith — himself a Swiss Army knife, to borrow Rob Turner's phrase, on the Green & White offense and special teams — as the lead kickoff returner and with first-round rookie Kyle Wilson and proven veterans Jim Leonhard and Jerricho Cotchery on punt runbacks.

"Coach Westhoff has been pushing us to become the type of unit you don't want to play," Brad Smith said. "Every time we break our huddle we say 'Playmakers.' We've been doing that since I got here but there's a little extra to it this year."

The kicking game concerns some fans but training camp and the preseason opener have been positive for all. Kicker Nick Folk hit three of four field goals, his only miss from 46 yards, and put four of his five kickoffs into the end zone vs. the Giants. Punters Steve Weatherford and T.J. Conley (who was waived today) combined for sharp averages of 48.3 gross and 41.3 net on three punts. And when the lights came on, long-snapper Tanner Purdum was on the money.

"Nick is doing a phenomenal job," said Weatherford, also Folk's holder, the backup kicker and the occasional fake punter. "I think he's really gotten very comfortable with myself and Tanner. His comfortability is really good right now. I think it's shown in his consistency of his field goal percentage — he's hit 90 percent of his practice kicks, if not more."

Despite the old reliables and the new hopefuls on this year's special teams, the proof will be in putting it on the field during games, and the next challenge will come at Bank of America Stadium against the Carolina Panthers on Saturday night.

The aforementioned talk show host left out of his equation for Jets special relativity the name of Lance Laury, yet Laury certainly showed what he can do as a specialist the previous two seasons even if many weren't paying attention to the Seahawks' teams in the Great Northwest. But even Laury saw the rationale behind the premise that the Jets, as good as they look on a computer screen, are still a relatively unknown quantity.

"How good can we be? It's hard to say right now," said Laury. "All we can do is build from what they had last year and keep going, keep striving to get on top. We can't think about what happened last year now. We're our team now."

And this "team" plans to do everything it can to help reach the Super goals of all the Jets' players and coaches.

"Anything less than a ring," said Weatherford, "is a total disappointment."

Preseason Live: New York Jets

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