After two weeks of training camp, the New York Jets begin their preseason slate tonight at the Meadowlands against the Atlanta Falcons. A number of rookies have made good first impressions in practice, but their performances in games this summer will go a long way in determining whether they make the team or even the practice squad.
Alvin Banks, a 5'10", 225-pound rookie running back from James Madison, continues to make the most of his reps. He has showcased the 4.53 speed he displayed at his Pro Day and he's got nice hands out of the backfield. But he also takes a humble approach, knowing he has a lot to learn yet.
"It's hard. Being new and just learning the offense is so hard. Focus is one of our goals around here, so if you focus you'll be pretty good," he said following a recent practice while pointing to the letters F-O-C-U-S the Jets have stenciled on the Hofstra FieldTurf.
A member of JMU's 2004 NCAA Division I-AA national championship team, Banks topped the 100-yard mark 11 times during his outstanding career. He also caught 57 balls and tallied four receiving touchdowns. He acknowledges there is a big difference between college playcalling and pro playcalling.
"Reading the defenses and the terminology, the way plays are called now, the plays are called to the defense," he said. "In college, you just line up and you run over people if you are a better team. The NFL game is a lot more mental."
In the Jets' simulated intrasquad game Sunday, Banks caught five balls for 36 yards and scored on a 9-yard pass from Marques Tuiasosopo. The rookie got behind veteran linebacker Eric Barton and had no trouble handling the pass.
"It wasn't an all-out scrimmage but it was nice," he said. "My play was a pass play, so it's not like I ran into the end zone and got tagged or anything. It was nice to come out and score against our defense because our defense is pretty good. Luckily on that touchdown, Tui looked for me and I was open."
Head coach Eric Mangini wants a roster marked by player versatility and Banks knows he has to be a complete running back.
"It will help a lot if you are a guy who just doesn't come in for rush situations or pass situations," he said. "It's good if you can be a back who can play no matter what down, distance, goal line, anything."
Banks shares a characteristic with Thomas Jones, the team's new feature back. They both grew up in Virginia.
"Alvin is a great running back," said Jones, who grew up in Big Stone Gap. "He's smart and has great athletic ability. He's a tough player."
"Me and Thomas have talked a lot. He's from Virginia and we know a lot of the same people we grew up together with," said Banks, a Hampton native. "We kind of talk about the past or even about being out here at practice."
With Jones and Washington atop the depth chart, Banks and fellow rookie Danny Ware, a former Georgia Bulldog, are waging competition for reps and possibly much more. If the Jets don't add another back to their roster, it's quite possible one of the rookie backs will be on the team when the regular season opens.
"Alvin has done a good job. He's another free agent guy we brought in," Mangini said. "With him and Danny [Ware], it's a good situation because they're both competing, but they're both sort of at the same spot in terms of picking up the system, so they've bonded. They're helping each other out while they're competing.
"Alvin's doing a good job. There's a lot of things with both those guys where you have to get on them and stay on them, but that's just the nature of the rookies. This time at camp there's a huge volume of information. I've liked what both those guys have done to this point, and they have to continue to develop a little on special teams."
When tough decisions are made in late August, special teams always become a huge factor. Banks, a realist, needs to make an impact in the often overlooked "third part of the game."
"Special teams are very important. If I end up being the third back, I'm going to have to be on special teams somewhere," he said. "I can't just stand on the back end and wait for my number to get called, especially with guys like Thomas Jones and Leon Washington in front of me. Luckily, we are very deep on special teams right now. I just have to find a way to fit in."
Where that will be still remains a mystery.
"I kind of have been moving around," he said. "We haven't played yet, so coaches don't know where we fit in completely. During the games, they are going to move people around and see where they fit in best."
Tonight will be a special occasion for Alvin and his family. Both his mother, Valerie Banks, and his older sister, Monica Lester, will be in the stands when No. 34 makes his first professional appearance.
"It's just me, my mom and my sister. They're excited," he said. "My sister has been excited since I was little kid. She always thought I had a chance to do this and she and my mom are my two biggest fans. They always support me."