Through all the juggling and improvisation, the coaching and the cajoling, Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams preached adaptability and family during the 2019 NFL season. Now the team's defensive guru is charged with conjuring more magic and adapting to an ever-changing menu of motivated men.
"We went through a lot last year, the whole 'last man standing, next man up,' " Williams told reporters recently at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. He added: "It's all about accountability, showing up on time, showing up in shape and prepared. They want to be coached. They want to be motivated and be inspired. If they do not they don't belong at this level.
"We are like a family, we treat everyone like a family. I tell them all the time I'm the hard-nosed father."
As the esteemed paterfamilias of the Jets' defense, Williams has helped preside over an emerging cohort on the defensive line. It is a good group with no superstars -- yet. A unit that adapted and coalesed last year, finishing second in the NFL in both rush yards allowed/game and yards allowed/carry. The 86.9 yards/game and 3.34 yards/carry were also both the third-best averages in franchise history. Six players — rookies Quinnen Williams and Kyle Phillips, veterans Steve McLendon, Henry Anderson, Folorunso (Foley) Fatukasi and Leonard Williams (traded in October to the Giants) — were in for at least 350 defensive snaps.
While McLendon, 34, and Anderson, 28, provide veteran anchors on the defensive line, players like Fatukasi -- a 2018 sixth-round draft pick out of the University of Connecticut who saw little game action until last year -- have embraced their opportunities to shine under the gaze of Williams and defensive line coach Andre Carter. Fatukasi was inactive for 15 games as a rookie in 2018, then joined Carter's D-line rotation (which also included Nathan Shepherd and Jordan Willis) last year while playing in 14 games. He saw nearly 400 snaps in the trenches and an additional 114 on special teams -- adding to his value.
"Last year was a great experience," Fatukasi said. "I got a lot of playing time. It was fun. It was a learning experience. But last year is last year. I feel like the whole season was a great experience. Being able to take those reps and being able to put together what I've learned. Last year? I'm past that now. I'm looking at this season."
Fatukasi spent time working out with McLendon in Florida, a guy he called the "big brother to everyone on this team."
"We've been doing workouts, truck pulls and stuff like that, just to push each other," McLendon said. "This is something that's different from the past offseasons. We continue to push each other when we're not together, so I can imagine what it will be like when we are together."
Still, mentor or no mentor, Fatukasi used the offseason to focus on "becoming a better player, athlete, smarter, stronger, faster. The further you go, the more you have to add to yourself and make yourself better."
Coach Adam Gase is bullish on Fatukasi and said he's especially impressed that the native New Yorker (Beach Channel HS, Far Rockaway) has consistently improved and is only getting better. Without saddling Fatukasi with expectations, the coaching staff hopes he can improve on a 2019 stat line that included 33 tackles, with 12 tackles for losses (Phillips led with 18 while McLendon had 15); a sack and 2 passes defended.
"He just showed us who he was and he's just continued to become even a better player week in and week out and even the way that he's operated so far in training camp, the way he came in in shape, ready to go, stronger, quicker," Gase said. " You can see that the strides he's making are phenomenal. Obviously, he's got a great mentor in Steve McLendon. He's one of the guys that I feel like he recognizes, 'Hey that guy's been in the league a long time, I'm going to do what he does,' and that's what he does. To me that's a smart player realizing that guy knows how to do it."
Since gaining a more important role on the defensive line, Fatukasi, who is of Nigerian descent, has earned the nickname "Foley." Perhaps it's because his given name of Folorunso is difficult to pronounce. (Officially and phonetically his name is rendered foe-luh-RUN-sho faa-too-KAH-see).
"Foley. Faluso, Fats," he said. "My only thing is that I would like people to try to pronounce my first name. But that's not important."