Jeremy Kerley, healthy again, is a big part of Jets' passing game

Jeremy Kerley celebrates his first-quarter touchdown reception against Jeremy Kerley celebrates his first-quarter touchdown reception against the Oakland Raiders. (Dec. 8, 2013) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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The training room had become Jeremy Kerley's own personal prison cell -- four walls separating him from the thing he needed to do most.

And he needed to escape.

He issued one S.O.S after another, but no one came to his rescue.

"I would get random texts saying 'I'm going crazy in the training room. Get me out of here,' " Jets receivers coach Sanjay Lal recalled with a laugh during a phone interview Friday.

In a room full of activity, Kerley felt isolated. With no quick fix for his dislocated left elbow, he just sat there. But the wait seemed endless. The monotony of his rehab became more suffocating with each passing day.

So when he wasn't moping at home or rolling his eyes at teammates giving him words of encouragement, Kerley was in the office of the team psychologist, Dr. Sara Hickmann, trying to figure out how to cope with being sidelined. "I was losing my mind," Kerley said.

As he spoke, he methodically unraveled black athletic tape from around his left forearm. And in some ways, the post-practice ritual mimicked the nature of his recovery.

Slow. Deliberate. Repetitive.

During the three weeks he was inactive, he ran routes in practice and caught passes with one arm. Still, it wasn't enough. "I just can't do it -- see guys practicing and running around while I'm sitting in the training room looking at four walls, doing the same things over and over,'' he said, referring to the alternating 20 minutes of electronic stimulation and 10-minute elbow massages.

But fortunately for the Jets (6-7), Kerley's no longer a spectator. He's back on the field and back to being a security blanket for rookie Geno Smith.

Last week against Oakland -- his first game since the injury -- he made a leaping 25-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter of the Jets' 37-27 win. It was Smith's first TD pass since a Week 7 win over New England -- which, coincidentally or not, was a 12-yard first-quarter strike to Kerley.

And with wideout Stephen Hill now on injured reserve, the Jets will need another big game from their slot receiver to get a win at Carolina on Sundayand keep their playoff hopes alive.

"He's definitely that safety net," Smith said of Kerley, who has more catches (32), receiving yards (388) and touchdowns (three) than Santonio Holmes and Hill combined.

The secret to Kerley's efficiency seems simple. But it's his effort and execution that make him one of the most trusted weapons on a Jets team starving for offensive production.

"He works hard to perfect what you see on game day," Lal said, noting that Kerley spends hours fine-tuning change-of-direction footwork and ball security. "He wants to be known as one of the better route-runners in the league."

Without Kerley, the Jets are 0-4 this season. And that's no coincidence. "It's a lot easier [to win] when you have him out there," Rex Ryan said.

That's because making plays has always come naturally to the 5-8, 188-pound Kerley. Before he became a standout at TCU, he was a hometown hero in Hutto, Texas -- a small town about 28 miles northeast of Austin, where streets are named in honor of his relatives.

He isn't an NFL star yet, but that's his end goal. "Wherever I go, I want to be a household name," Kerley said. "I definitely want to make the people of New York have trust in me."

While Holmes, Hill and former tight end Dustin Keller were hobbled by injuries in 2012, Kerley caught a team-high 56 passes for 827 yards and two scores from Mark Sanchez. He's already developed a strong connection with Smith. "I tell him: 'I'll be here for you if you need me," Kerley said. "Any time. I'll beat this dude. I don't care if it's Darrelle Revis. Just throw me the ball and we'll be good.' "

The Jets' offense is ranked 30th overall, but Kerley's third-down efficiency is key. "I think he's proven last year, and when Santonio went down this year, that he can move to an outside position and we don't skip a beat,'' Lal said. "He's proven he can be an all-around receiver."

Said Smith: "He just gets open and he finds ways to make plays.''

Smith easily recalled Kerley's performance in the 2011 Senior Bowl: two touchdowns, including a 23-yard touchdown pass from Christian Ponder that clinched the South's 24-10 victory over the North.

"He lit it up, man," Smith said. "He is underrated. I don't think he gets enough credit for what he does."

The only person who seemed unaware of Kerley's impact was Kerley himself. That's because he's more worried about being focused than flashy.

"I just keep my head down and keep pushing,'' he said, peeling away more tape.

And that's why injuries are so maddening. The concussion he suffered in the season opener forced him out of the Jets' Thursday night game against the Patriots in Week 2. But he wasn't prepared for the pain and the emotional toll of his most recent injury.

"It felt like somebody ripped my arm out," said Kerley, who suffered the injury when his former TCU teammate, Saints linebacker David Hawthorne, fell on his arm during the Jets' win. "I compared it to my wife having a baby. I felt like I had a baby in my arm, like I was trying to push something out. For real. It was unnatural. It hurt so bad.''

For two weeks, his wife, Kristal Juarez, put on his socks and shoes. And when Kerley needed to pick up their two young children, he could manage that only with his right arm.

He still can't fully extend his left arm, and he still wears a brace over it on game day. But at least now there's only a little pain. And that's not enough to slow him down.

"He's big asset. He's just that good," said Bilal Powell, his best friend and fellow back. "I think he's one of the most underrated slot receivers in this league."

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