For Jets' Bilal Powell, the time has come

Jets running back Bilal Powell (29) carries against

Jets running back Bilal Powell (29) carries against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first half of an NFL preseason game. (Aug. 10, 2012) (Credit: AP)

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Bilal Powell faded into the background without saying a word.

At the time, it seemed the Louisville product was overmatched by the newness of the NFL and intimidated by those who had arrived before him.

When the Jets selected him in the fourth round of last year's draft, they already had Shonn Greene and future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson leading their rushing attack, plus 2010 draft pick Joe McKnight.

And that left little room for Powell.

"When he got here, he just kind of waited on the runway," running backs coach Anthony Lynn said during a break from meetings. "So he didn't get many opportunities. And his personality, he's real laidback, he's quiet, he doesn't say much. And I think when you have that personality, where you're kind of an introvert, I think some people forget about you sometimes."

But all the while, Powell was watching.

Within a year, he's emerged from the shadows to claim the Jets' third-down back spot - the role previously held by Tomlinson.

Though Powell has been characterized as shy, aloof and untrusting of the media, at his core, he's simply an observer. He studied Tomlinson, taking notes on how to be as efficient at running and catching the football as well as protecting the quarterback. And he learned the importance of durability by watching Greene, who rushed for a career-high 1,054 yards.

"Last year I was just trying to be a sponge," said Powell, who had a modest 13 carries for 21 yards in two games in 2011. "I was trying to soak up everything. Any and everything I was able to learn, I took it in."

McKnight entered training camp looking for a bigger role, but Powell set himself apart with his tenacity from their first day in Cortland. Especially in pass protection.

It was the one flaw in his college game tape - and it was glaring, said his position coach.

"It's safe to say the boy wouldn't have hit the water if he fell out a boat. It was that bad," said Lynn. "But if you have the right attitude, I can coach you and teach you the right technique. He's been a good student and he's caught on."

Under Lynn's tutelage, the 5-10, 204-pound Powell has turned his greatest weakness into a surprising strength. His teammates become animated when they talk about the running back's willingness to sacrifice his body for the good of the team - and most importantly, quarterback Mark Sanchez. Whether his charge is a blitzing safety or linebacker, or even a defensive end coming off the line of scrimmage, Powell is determined to stop them in their tracks.

"Throughout camp, preseason, he's been doing one heck of a job," said tight end Jeff Cumberland. "He's been coming in there aggressive, just throwing his body in there and taking them on."

"His pass pro[tection] is tremendous," Greene said, adding that Powell has cemented the third-down role. "I was really surprised by that. He'll stick his head in there and block whoever. His size - I think that's what surprises everybody. But the size of his heart is way bigger than his physique."

Powell, who went into the offseason determined to improve his blocking, has exceeded everyone's expectations. But in his eyes, it was just a necessary step toward becoming a complete player.

"I just want to take care of my quarterback," he said, adding that there's still room for improvement. "And I know if you don't protect your quarterback, you're not going to be in the game. So I take pride in doing that."

Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano said he's been impressed with the running back's intelligence, shiftiness and field vision, adding: "Whenever we put him in the game he has made yards when there's nothing there."

Powell rushed for 92 yards on 26 carries and collected 17 yards on four catches in the Jets' four preseason games. In comparison, McKnight had 19 carries for 73 yards in three exhibition games. He did not run the ball in the third preseason game against Carolina -- the dress rehearsal for starters.

But Powell's skill set is only enhanced by his preparation. The 23-year-old has proven himself to be dependable, attending every meeting and practice, said Lynn.

It was the running backs coach who had raved to Rex Ryan back in 2011 about the running back out of Louisville. As he studied Powell's game tape, Lynn became more and more impressed with Powell's running ability. But he also could see the kid could run routes one-on-one and beat man-coverage.

"I thought he was one of the best combination backs in college football that year," said Lynn.

Now the position coach is expecting Powell's preseason production to carryover into the regular-season -- starting Sunday against the Bills.

"I feel very confident in his ability as a third-down guy," Lynn said, adding that such a player must be "an absolute expert" in protections, be able to quickly dissect defensive strategies and work in tandem with the offensive line. "It's not just running out of the backfield catching a ball or running the ball. You have to do a lot of other jobs. And Bilal, he's impressed me with that role."

The Jets drafted Powell with the expectation that he could be Tomlinson's replacement last year. But it won't take 11 weeks for the second-year back to make an appearance this season.

No longer is Powell in the background waiting for his time to come. His time has finally come.

Said Powell: "I feel well-prepared."

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