Jets QB Coach Rob Calabrese on Zach Wilson: 'He's a Different Guy'

HC Robert Saleh Touts L.I. Native as a Future Offensive Coordinator 

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As a redshirt senior at the University of Central Florida, Rob Calabrese saw the proverbial writing on the wall. The quarterback from Islip Terrace on Long Island sustained a serious knee injury as a junior, sat out his senior season and in his fifth-year found himself splitting time between playing quarterback and wide receiver.

"Yeah, I switched positions," Calabrese, now the Jets' quarterbacks coach, told senior team reporter Eric Allen on the latest edition of "The Official Jets Podcast." "I tore my ACL three times, the second time we had two good quarterbacks and I didn't see myself playing. Coach asked me to switch [to WR] and help make the offense go. It was fun, a great experience, and a different view of the game. The speed of the game is totally different when you're a receiver. You have to reset your mental focus, but it was a good experience for me."

The experience led Calabrese to the realization that there would be little football for him to play beyond college. The guy who broke Boomer Esiason's passing records at East Islip HS, packed his gear, grabbed a whistle and a clipboard, and joined the coaching staff at Oviedo HS in the Orlando, FL, area in 2013 as their varsity quarterbacks coach.

"The idea is to get your foot in the door at whatever program," he said. "Working at a high school gave me a job in the school and I was able to coach. Then I was on the staff at UCF [as a graduate assistant]. As a young coach, you just want to get into the building. An internship, whatever, you have that moment to step into the building to impress whomever. You never know. Make an impression."

Calabrese has made strong impressions along the way, at Wagner College on Staten Island for a couple of years, then as the offensive quality control coach with the Denver Broncos (where he got to work with the Jets' current backup QB, Joe Flacco, who is 5 years older), then on to the Jets, hired by head coach Robert Saleh in January 2021.

"It's amazing, he [Saleh] makes you look at things through a different lens," Calabrese said. "He stresses how meaningful each rep, each individual, each meeting is to what we're trying to accomplish. He does things to get players ready for Sunday."

But before Calabrese, rookie quarterback Zach Wilson and the new coaching staff could sink their teeth into the coming 2021 NFL season, the team's influential passing game specialist, Greg Knapp was killed in a bicycle crash in California the week before the start of training camp. As a rookie himself, Calabrese, 32, was soon joined in the QB room by Matt Cavanaugh and later John Beck, Wilson's personal QB coach.

"It was probably one of the toughest calls I ever got," Calabrese said about learning of Knapp's death. "He was probably the most important person I've met in my coaching career. He loved to inform and he wanted to share, he wanted to help develop players. I'm thankful for his presence, it was huge for me, and I'm very lucky and blessed to have been around him. He was an amazing teacher."

The entire organization felt Knapp's death as his infectious personality left a lasting impact. But as Calabrese said, the coaching by committee approach in the QB room was all about doing everything possible to help Wilson be a success.

"With Coach Cav, it was another veteran with so much information, certain things you can't get from anyone else," he said. "Beck is a guy who can fundamentally look at a quarterback and be able to fix things without making wholesale changes. It was a great opportunity for me to grow as a quarterbacks coach."

Others also took notice. Saleh told the media recently that Calabrese was sought as an offensive coordinator. The Jets' HC is one of Calabrese's biggest fans, having installed him as the OC when the team's staff coached the National team at this year's Senior Bowl. Saleh recently said that he wouldn't be surprised if his QB coach ends up somewhere as an OC. But for now, Calabrese is charged with helping Wilson make a leap in Year 2 of Mike LaFleur's offensive scheme.

"Remember, it's a rookie quarterback in the NFL, the hardest position to play at this level," Calabrese said of Wilson's rookie season. "He was thrown into the fire in Game 1 and played until he got hurt. He was then able to sit back and reflect and really think about what he was seeing and what it meant to him. He was allowed to watch others execute the scheme, and realized that you don't have to make a play on every single down. Let the game come to you. When he came back, it was kind of like his sophomore year. He got hurt, it was unfortunate, but he got better from it. It was cool to see him come back and change his game."

"Now it's Year 2 in the system. He's a different guy, very confident in our scheme." He added: "Not every play can be an explosive. But it's what you do with your completions that creates what happens later on in the game."

Calabrese is in a unique position to influence and counsel a young and exciting quarterback. The Jets have fortified the offense up front (signing LG Laken Tomlinson and TEs C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin in free agency, for example), at wide receiver (drafting Garrett Wilson No. 10, re-signing Braxton Berrios and getting Corey Davis back from injury) and running back (drafting Breece Hall No. 36).

For a former quarterback who recognized his limitations and decided to take a different route, it's an exciting challenge.

Asked about his decision to pursue a career in coaching, Calabrese said: "I made the right decision. I had fun playing the position. Hey, they used to call me 'Checkdown Charlie.' "

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