In most of New Jersey, "The Big Man" is synonymous with Bruce Springsteen's saxophone player and larger-than-life figure, Clarence Clemons. Around the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center in Florham Park, however, "The Big Man" is defensive tackle Kris Jenkins.
The starting nose tackle, a vital part of the Jets' defense, has gotten down to the weight he needed to return to full 11-on-11 practice this morning at the first practice of the three-day minicamp. He looks to be almost all the way back from the anterior cruciate ligament tear he suffered last season against Buffalo in Week 6.
"I'm feeling great," Jenkins said. "It's actually been a good experience. I feel like I'm ready to go and I'm doing what I need to get myself ready, get myself out there. Part of that is going out there and doing some of the drills so my knee can get used the football movements. And that's what most of the surgery is, getting to the point where you trust your injuries again."
After being traded from the Carolina Panthers to the Jets for third- and fifth-round picks in 2008, Jenkins logged career highs in tackles with 50 that season. Last year he was on pace for another great season, but his campaign was cut short when teammate Shaun Ellis accidentally rolled onto his left knee when they both tackled Buffalo's Fred Jackson.
In 2005 with the Panthers, Jenkins tore his right ACL, so he was fully prepared for the hard work he would need to put in to restore his knee after the injury. Being able to practice with the full team today is just a testament to all of his hard work this offseason.
"I think it's almost like a reward for everything that I've done so far," Jenkins said, "putting all the work in and making sure I've been working on the weight and getting it down. To be able to get out on the field and get to moving, it feels great. Now I know I'm on the right track to keep on pushing it and once training camp comes around we'll take it to the next benchmark and by the season we'll be ready to go."
When Jenkins was injured, he immediately made sure that Ellis didn't feel bad or take any responsibility for the accident, saying that it could have happened to anyone in the game very easily. Regardless, Ellis seemed extremely relieved to have Jenkins on the field again — for a multitude of reasons. With Jenkins demanding attention from multiple offensive linemen, it makes the defensive end's jobs much easier.
"It's good to have him back," Ellis said. "He's a main part of our defense. He's a big body in the middle who does a lot of good things for us and puts a lot of pressure on the opposing team. It's a good feeling to see him back there running around and having fun."
With Jenkins wreaking havoc up front, the cornerbacks and safeties can jump routes knowing the quarterback has to get rid of the ball quickly. Not only does the big man in the middle help take the attention off of the defensive ends and linebackers and allow the secondary to make plays, but he also makes a major impact in the running game.
"It's great to see him back and see him working," Smith said. "He's a huge part of stopping the run on our defense. There are a lot of times when you see him just running through the offensive line, tackling the running back 5 yards into the backfield with offensive linemen on his back. He has things you can't teach — size and strength."
That combination of assets makes him a commanding figure in the locker room, along with his sense of humor and welcoming nature. In interviews this season, Jenkins has been very introspective and believes that he has matured as a man and as a player. "It felt good to work, honestly," he said. "That's the funny part about football. You get to a certain point in your career where you just enjoy putting the work in. I'm there now."
With a sense of stability and comfort with his life, his body and his role, Jenkins now can move forward and continue to meet the goals and benchmarks set by his trainers and coaches. With his history of injuries, the staff has been very careful, but head coach Rex Ryan doesn't believe in trying to overprotect a talent like Jenkins, who must play at full speed and full strength to be a true force. In describing his feelings about Jenkins' situation, Ryan quoted his father, former NFL head coach Buddy Ryan.
"You can't go out there trying to protect this or protect that," Ryan said. "My dad had a great comment: 'Everybody can go after a guy, but it's hard to kick a guy's butt when he's kicking your butt.' "
Look for the hard-working and rehabilitated Kris Jenkins to do a ton of butt-kicking between the trenches for the Jets this season and for opponents and teammates to truly see that "The Big Man" is back at full strength.