If there is anyone who can empathize with Vernon Gholston right now, it's the two outside linebackers ahead of him on the depth chart: Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas.
"It's hard to ask a 21-year-old or 22-year-old guy to go out there and have a Pro Bowl season," Pace said today.
Through his first four professional games, Gholston — the Jets' No. 6 overall selection in April's draft — has one defensive tackle. He's played about 20 plays a game, predominantly when the Green & White go to their nickel package, and he's also a goal line defender.
"I think he's doing an all-right job," Pace said. "Honestly, we have a very difficult system from the standpoint that the outside linebacker is asked to do a lot. It might be a little tough on him since he wasn't in that position in college."
Pace, a Wake Forest product who was the No. 18 overall selection of the Arizona Cardinals in the 2000 draft, and Thomas, a former UAB Blazer whom the Green & White tabbed with the No. 22 selection two years later, also played defensive end in college.
But neither player was asked to make the transition Gholston is currently undertaking. After racking up 14 sacks last season for the Buckeyes, the 6'3", 264-pounder is no longer a defensive lineman.
"Anytime you are coming from your hand on the ground to playing on your feet, it's a big transition. I expected it to take a little time," Gholston said today. "I have made a lot of strides since the first day I have put on the pads but still have a long ways to go."
In his first pro season, Pace started 16 games and racked up 32 tackles (21 solo) and one sack. Thomas didn't make a start, appearing in 15 games and picking up 11 tackles with a half sack.
"You are playing against a lot of different people and sometimes your head spins," Pace explained. "Sometimes you go home and you're like 'What happened today?' You just really kind of black out. From his standpoint he needs to keep plugging away, keep working, keep getting better in practice and just go out there and perform."
Most recently, Gholston earned recognition for his effort during the Jets' toppling of the Cardinals in Week 4. Mangini and special teams guru Mike Westhoff named Gholston their Special Teams Player of the Week after he registered four tackles.
"Mike's tough. We go through a process of selecting that guy and those aren't gimmes," said Mangini. "You've got to earn that and he did. I was proud of that fact, especially in an area he's not familiar with."
"It's funny," said Pace, "because when he started, you could tell he never played special teams, but that helps build him. It's like you were the guy for that week and you did a great job. You can definitely see how hard he worked on that, learned how to play special teams, learned the schemes, and he did a great job."
Coming from a football factory like Ohio State, Gholston knows a lot of people who've left the Buckeyes program and succeeded on the next level. They include Pats OLB Mike Vrabel, a former unrestricted free agent who didn't start an NFL game until his fifth season and earned his first Pro Bowl selection last season.
After Gholston was drafted, Vrabel talked to him about the mental part of the game, how to see different formations and pass-rush techniques from a standup position. Mangini, a former Pats defensive assistant, also employs a 3-4 with the Jets and places a heavy emphasis on practice.
"The biggest thing for Vern is to use the practice to work on whatever you want to work on. Even if it's something crazy — just go 100 miles an hour," Pace said. "I tell him, 'You mess up, yeah, they are going to say something about it, but your effort should never be a question.' Not that it is, but just always work hard and try to improve on something every day."
There is no set timetable for Vernon Gholston. We know he's a big stud, but he's also going through an enormous change.
"I don't really go in with expectations because it's so radically different player to player," Mangini said. "I've seen some guys that right away can make that transition. Some guys it takes a little bit more time to do that. I don't ever have an expectation there. It's going to be reps, experience and consistent work ethic."