This is the first of two stories on the two young competitors for the Jets' punting job for the 2009 season.
T.J. Conley kicked it up a notch for his senior season at Idaho. There's no telling what he can do now that he's made it to the NFL.
"Really, I think what helped me the most was I really started focusing on punting," said Conley, who joined Eric Wilbur at last weekend's rookie minicamp in the battle for the Jets' punting job after Reggie Hodges was released April 27. "I played quarterback up at Idaho all the way until my junior year. Then I decided to focus on punting and it helped me a lot."
His position readjustment began in earnest last summer, when he attended Kohl's Professional Camps for punting, kicking and snapping based in Wisconsin.
"That helped me a ton," Conley said. "They had some great punters there, too. Thomas Morstead [SMU's punter who went to New Orleans in Round 5 this year] got drafted, and a bunch of other guys signed with teams. It was a lot of good competition.
"They also had a sports psychologist there who probably helped me a little bit. You can't really get into a groove when you're a punter, so you've got to be able to sit on the sideline and not have to worry about, say, if you had a bad punt or something."
Jamie Kohl, a former kicker with Seattle who runs the camps with his brother, Andy (the punter), and father, John, said the quarterback part of Conley's game was important when he arrived at last year's camp.
"As a QB you have to be good under pressure and confident in what you are doing," Jamie said in an email to newyorkjets.com. "You also have to be at handling the football. I think that his QB skills on handling the football all those years have helped him with the catching and molding of his drops consistently."
There was also something about his approach to the camp that spoke to Jamie:
"TJ just seemed more mature than the average college senior that we have been around. He seemed very confident without coming across as cocky. I really feel that TJ 's strength will be his ability to handle pressure and perform when it counts. His ability to hit consistent punts should help him when he is competing for a job."
Certainly Conley showed a consistency to thump the ball at Idaho as a senior. As noted in our story about the Jets' defensive undrafted free agents, Conley's 47.4-yard gross average for the Vandals was the best for all levels of college football for the past four years.
In the middle of his 2008 season, Conley received a Gem State visit from Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff.
"Coach Westhoff came up to Idaho and worked me out. I really liked him a lot," Conley said. "He let me know there's a good opportunity here for me. I did a little bit of research on my own, too. It definitely was the best opportunity for me out of the teams that gave me an option to come to their camp."
Conley was one of the last undrafted free agents to arrive at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center last Thursday night. On Friday morning he entered the center's fieldhouse with the 94-foot-high ceiling and had the same thought that Ben Graham did when the former Jets punter first set eyes on the fieldhouse a year ago.
"Try to hit the ceiling? That was exactly the first thing that came to mind when I walked in there," Conley said. "I actually said that to one of the equipment managers. He said no way. If I was to hit it, it'd be a really high punt, not very far."
Both Conley and Wilbur came close to skimming the steel during their only punting period in the fieldhouse last Friday afternoon. Saturday and Sunday practices were outdoors. Then Conley left with the rest of the true rookies while first-year man Wilbur rejoined the rest of the Jets veterans as they resumed their off-season strength and conditioning program Monday.
The two will resume their competition once Conley returns after May 16.
"Eric's been helping me out, showing me the ropes," the 6'3", 220-pounder from Walla Walla, Wash., said over the weekend. "He's been doing a great job, too. It's been a lot of fun. It's been great here. It's going to be a battle for that spot."