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Back at the ST Helm, Westhoff Likes the View

If anyone could be forgiven for feeling today's soggy morning Central New York weather "deep in his bones," it would be Mike Westhoff. But the Jets' special teams commander was comfortable as he stood under a tent and, with rain pelting the fabric over his head, talked about the latest issue with his left leg, which kept him out of a chunk of the Jets' offseason, and his return to the specialists' helm for his latest training camp.

"I knew after the surgery I'd be fine, because the surgery worked," Westhoff told about the 10th operation on his left leg on May 18. "It was actually kind of a hardware repair. None of the graft that was attached to me was damaged. Therefore I was lucky. If that had been damaged, that's tough. That would've taken a whole new ... what it ended up being is — it sounds silly — just new metal parts."

Asked if he ever doubted for a minute that he'd return to the sidelines for his 12th season with the Jets and his 30th as an NFL coach, he gave a "Coach Westy" reply that is perfectly reasonable yet still sounds as if the tough and thorough Westhoff had taught himself radiology to go alongside his masterful drawing of X's and O's for his special-teamers.

"I knew I'd be back, to be honest, the second I saw the X-ray," he said. "I knew what it was, I knew it could be repaired, and I knew I'd be fine. When I saw that, I knew there was no damage below, but up by my hip, it was sore. I was a little worried about it when I fell on it. It was sore, and I didn't know if it was a matter of if something had torn out — that was scary. Once I saw the X-ray, it was obvious it was just the metal and the part would be replaced and I'd be fine."

Iron Mike (or Titanium Mike?) has been back since before the buses left for SUNY Cortland on Thursday. He's using a cane again, but only to help him navigate long walks. "When I'm on the field, I put it down ... in fact, I got it all wet today," he said. He's riding his bike around campus again, as he did two and three years ago.

And he's retrained his coaching eye on his players, who again should comprise one of the NFL's top special teams.

"I think we have a chance to be pretty good," he said. "The kickers and punters have to come through. Sometimes you're as good as they are. If they can do things, well, that really makes a big difference."

Here are Westhoff's observations, specialty by specialty:

Punting — T.J. Conley has gotten off to a great start to camp, showing the results of a dedicated offseason that resulted, as the second-year man said, from "practice, practice, practice" plus focused strength work with coach Bill Hughan and his staff. On Friday he nailed a pair of back-to-back eye-openers, 63- and 65-yard directional punts that sent the returner out of bounds at his 7- and 5-yard lines respectively.

"Yeah, he punted well Friday, and he punted well today in the rain, both those guys did," said Westhoff, including first-year man Travis Baltz. "I think you're always working on technique, and he's a little bigger and stronger. That part we like, the way he looks physically. ... Hopes are high."

We'll detail more about Conley's progress in an exclusive feature for our e-newsletter subscribers early next week. Click here to sign up.

Placekicking — "It'll be an interesting battle" between incumbent Nick Folk and veteran addition Josh Brown, Westhoff said. "Josh is a very viable candidate and makes for a very competitive kicking competition. It's a good battle. They're both pretty good. They can do it. And I think we needed that situation because Nick's inconsistencies are frustrating."

An example of that was Folk's 24-yard miss on the opening drive of the Jets' home loss to the Patriots last season.

"Now, can he turn around and make the kick that beat the Colts and go to the next playoff game? Yes. But you can't miss that. That's disappointing," the coach said. "To his credit, we put him in a competitive situation. He's fighting right now, he's doing well. It's a good, honest competition."

Returners — Some of the best and most exciting Jets ST plays come on kick returns. Last year Joe McKnight's 31.6-yard kickoff return average not only led the NFL but was the best average in the league's last 25 seasons. "As much as I'm very happy and proud, I'm disappointed in the things Joe didn't do," Westhoff said, referring to several returns that he might have taken to the house but for various reasons didn't. "We could've set a record last year that would never be touched."

As for Jeremy Kerley, he was the rookie punt returner most of the season and also did some very nice things in averaging 10.9 yards for the ninth-best PR team in the league. Westhoff's disappointment here is "that he got a hamstring yesterday and got hurt. I'm counting on him."

Blockers and Tacklers — The kickoff-return team, he said, "was maybe the best blocking group I've ever had. ... The hardcore guys are back and they're pretty good. Nick Bellore and Josh Mauga, they're good players. We're going to free up Eric Smith to be back with us a little bit more. If you look at our field-position numbers, we were really good." And the coach is hoping to get even better with the addition of young guns such as third-round rookie Demario Davis, as soon as he returns to action from his Thursday hamstring pop. Whether we're talking about Westhoff's leg or his possibly final group of Jets' top-rank specialists before he hangs 'em up and heads back home to the shark fishing around his Florida home, the prognosis for 2012 is the same: "It's pretty much back to normal."

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