Bender protecting the backfield at training camp.
When the New York Jets selected tackle Jacob Bender in the sixth round, No. 177 overall, of the 2007 NFL Draft, he became the first Nicholls State offensive lineman ever drafted.
After six days of his first professional training camp, Bender still finds it all hard to believe.
"It's just awesome to see me out there in a Jets uniform with all the Jets players," he said after Wednesday's practice. "It's weird, though. I used to watch film of myself in college, but now I'm out here in the NFL and it's just crazy. It's surreal."
Bender, an affable giant at 6'6" and 315 pounds, played at a small school that ran the triple option. As a senior, he registered 87 knockdown blocks for a team that averaged 233.9 yards on the ground. The Division I-AA All-American definitely wasn't overworked in terms of pass protection, but he's getting plenty of opportunity with the Jets.
"Since I'm playing right tackle now, Anthony Clement is helping me with my pass sets," said the Mayo, Md., native. "Sometimes I am setting too flat and I'm setting too wide and they're getting me inside. He is telling me to set on an angle and not to get so deep and not so flat. Just little things are helping me out a lot."
Young players can suffer from information overload in their first camps, but Bender doesn't seemed fazed by the playbook and his blocking assignments.
"The mental part is actually coming to me pretty well," he said. "This is like the fifth time we have installed — we had OTAs, rookie minicamp, minicamp, rookie training camp and now we have training camp. I have seen it a lot, so that part of it is coming to me real well."
But there isn't much that could have prepared Bender for the difference in competition. The best of the best play in the NFL and there are big-time talents abound at Weeb Ewbank Hall.
"The physical part of it is definitely a big change from where I come from. Everybody is fast, everybody is strong," he said. "In I-AA, I was able to get away with some things, being high [in his stance] or not having my feet right. I could still get away with it there but up here, man, you catch your feet wrong or you get your pads a couple of inches high, you are getting blown up."
Before Camp Mangini, the rookies had less than two weeks to catch a breath. The 22-year-old Bender grabbed his younger brother Jesse and went to a local field back home to review his pass sets every day.
"We would go up to the high school up the corner from me," he said. "We wouldn't snap a ball — he would go on my movement. He used to play defensive end in high school and is a little younger than me, so he would rush a little bit."
The development of Bender will take time. He is an athletic prospect, though, who will continue to make progress under offensive line coaches Tony Wise and Mike Devlin.
"I love them. They are great. They really help me out a lot," he said. "They take time to watch all the things I do right and all the things I do wrong. They put 'em together. They sit me down and show me and say, 'This is why you lost this rep.' That is really helping me out a lot because I can see it and then come out here on the field and correct it. That's great."
Short-term personal goals are set daily, but the long-term goal is to be here in the months ahead.
"Day to day, I'll watch the film and say, 'Ah, I didn't get my hands up high enough or my set was too flat.' So I'll go out the next practice with one or two things to work on," he said. "Some of the older guys and the coaches told me that helps a lot, so I do that. First and foremost, though, my goal is to make the team."
When the sun goes down and the players depart for their dorms, Bender musters up the energy to open his playbook.
"I try to every night. I try to get in and look, even if it's a glance," he said. "I try to get at least 20-30 minutes in my head, just to reinstall it in my head so I'm not thinking on the field. My old coach in college, Jay Thomas, used to say, 'Free your mind, free your feet.' You have your mind clear, you can roll."
Bender is rolling pretty well in his first camp. He was supposed to be sharing a suite in the Hofstra dorms with Darrelle Revis, but the Jets' top pick has yet to sign a contract and hasn't reported. So Bender's not only the first Nicholls State offensive lineman to have been drafted, but he's also got a suite to himself.