The Jets defense promises to look a lot different next season. And while many wonder whether there could be a leadership void, Muhammad Wilkerson is ready for more responsibility on his broad shoulders.
"A lot of changes have been made and a lot of veterans are gone. But I am looking forward to the challenge of stepping up and being a leader on the defense — not just the D-line but helping out the defense in general," he told me on our latest "Jets Talk LIVE" installment. "I am definitely looking forward to stepping up to the challenge and becoming a leader of this defense."
The Green & White have made significant changes on all three levels of their defense. Up front, the Jets added veteran DL Antonio Garay, released NT Sione Pouha and DL Mike DeVito departed in free agency to the Kansas City Chiefs. While Garay is the savvy vet, Wilkerson is 23, Quinton Coples is 22, Kenrick Ellis is 25 and Damon Harrison is 24.
"All of us are really young on the defensive line, so if you look at it — we have a whole bunch of young guys who have played some football here, who are mature and we all look to having a future here with the Jets for a long time," he said.
After drafting Wilkerson with the 30th overall selection in the 2011 Draft, the Jets addressed the DL again in the first round last year when they pegged Coples with the 16th overall selection. Coples, a North Carolina product, paced the Jets with 5.5 sacks his rookie campaign.
"He came along well," Wilkerson said of his former Hargrave Military Academy teammate. "He wasn't playing a lot in the first half of the season but as he got out there more on the field — he was definitely a big plus for me. Not only me — but the rest of the defense. I look forward to Quinton definitely making a big step in his second year."
The 6'4", 315-pound Wilkerson made an enormous step in his second season. Appearing in all 16 games, Wilkerson set career-bests in sacks (5), tackles (90), forced fumbles (2) and he added a touchdown for good measure.
"I feel that I accomplished some good things helping out the defense and overall myself I think I did a pretty good job. But I think I could have done some things better. There is always room for improvement," he said. "Last year, I felt like I kind of picked it up towards the second half of the season which was maybe a little bit too late. But I look forward to making this change this year and just going full force in Week 1."
Despite often seeing double team attention, Wilkerson continued to win his battles in the trenches. Under the tutelage of defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, Wilkerson excels in hand-to-hand combat.
"Just using your hands to be more physical than the opposing person and striking them with your hands to get separation, so you can shed blocks and at the end of it — make plays," he says.
It doesn't seem all too long ago that Wilkerson, a Linden HS alum, walked into the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center for the first time. But with two solid professional years under his belt, Wilkerson continues to evolve.
"I still have my days when all my friends will bring it up where they still can't believe that I'm a professional football player," he said. "But I am still enjoying it and having fun at this young age."