Jets' Jeremy Kerley has burning desire to succeed

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (6) and

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (6) and wide receiver Jeremy Kerley (11) celebrate after Kerley caught a touchdown pass against the Buffalo Bills during the first half of an NFL football game at MetLife Stadium. (Sept. 9, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Jeremy Kerley knows you don't believe. But that's OK.

You aren't the first doubter he's had to confront. And you certainly won't be the last.

Even in his hometown of Hutto, Texas (about 28 miles northeast of Austin), where streets are named for his ancestors, Kerley consistently had to prove desire can outwork physical attributes any day.

The success of the Jets' passing game now rests partly on the shoulders of a 5-9, 190-pound second-year slot receiver who entered Rex Ryan's doghouse on the first day of training camp.

With Santonio Holmes lost for the season because of a foot injury -- and tight end Dustin Keller and rookie receiver Stephen Hill (hamstrings) again doubtful to play -- Kerley will be the Jets' longest-tenured wide receiver Monday night against the Houston Texans.

But the spotlight is the one thing Kerley has never shied from in his 23 years. And he knows the NFL stage won't shine any brighter during the regular season than it will Monday night.

The Texans are 4-0, while the Jets are reeling from the loss of their two biggest stars (Darrelle Revis and Holmes) and an embarrassing home defeat at the hands of the 49ers. If the Jets (2-2) expect to win, Mark Sanchez's play-action passing game needs to work with an unproven group of receivers, headlined by Kerley and veteran Chaz Schilens.

The Jets signed free-agent wideout Jason Hill on Wednesday to add depth, but after five days, he isn't expected to make much of an impact. Kerley is.

The soft-spoken TCU product isn't cocky. But he wants the ball.

"I want every pass, I want everything to come my way, only because I feel like -- not to say I'm the game-changer or anything -- but I want to take it upon myself to show my team that they can trust me.

"Monday will be the real test. When my number is called, I get to prove I am that guy."

Got the goods

Kerley didn't waste time with pleasantries. All he needed to know was what his new wide receivers coach thought of him.

"Before he even said 'Hi' to me, he said: 'Do you think I can be an every-down receiver?' " position coach Sanjay Lal recalled of their conversation. "And my answer was 'Yes. I do.' So now he has his chance."

Kerley possesses all the tools to be a success, Lal said -- speed, good hands and route-running ability. But it's his "off-the-charts" short-area quickness that sets the slot receiver apart.

"You can't coach it," said Lal, who spent three years in Oakland before coming to the Jets in January. "You're born with it. Jeremy's got the best short-area quickness I've ever seen."

Long before he was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his breakout performance against the Bills in Week 1, Kerley burst on to the TCU scene as a receiver and return specialist. Twice he was named the Mountain West Conference's special teams player of the year. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, given to the most versatile player in major college football.

To this day, he remains the pride of Hutto.

"Every kid wants to be Jeremy Kerley," said his high school offensive coordinator, Mickey Bushong.

Hutto, population 15,000, is the kind of small Texas town where everyone knows everyone -- especially the name "Kerley." Kerley Drive is named for his paternal great-great grandfather, Doc, who founded the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1901. Close by is Jim Cage Lane, named for Kerley's maternal grandfather, who was the town's first African-American councilman.

Kerley said he never paid too much attention to his historical roots, perhaps because he was too busy making a name for himself athletically. The four-year letterman in high school loved the baseball diamond. But on the gridiron is where he would leave his mark.

He wasn't the fastest, but he certainly was Hutto's best player -- even as a freshman, said Bushong. The following year, Kerley was the district defensive player of the year, and as a junior, he was named the district MVP after quarterbacking Hutto High to the state final.

Whenever people dared to say he was too slow or too small, Kerley proved them wrong.

"Whatever 'it' is, it's always been that way," said Bushong, now a coach at Round Rock McNeil High in Austin. "Heck, on his high school team he wasn't the fastest kid, but he was always the best. He's got a burning desire that a lot of people don't have."

Drive to succeed

The Jets could see that when they chose Kerley in the fifth round of last year's NFL draft. But because of injuries, the team will need more production out of him than ever before.

Kerley's statistics -- 10 catches for 197 yards and two touchdowns (one of which came on a 68-yard punt return against Buffalo) -- might not seem impressive to some. But he remains confident heading into the biggest game of the Jets' season. And the chip that sat on his shoulder throughout training camp still remains.

The slight hamstring tear that relegated him to Ryan's doghouse on the first day of training camp discouraged him. It was clear in the text messages he traded with Bushong and the heart-to-hearts he had with Lal. But in a month's span, he has a chance to make a name for himself on the national stage. And he has no doubt he can do it.

"It's a cliché, but it's all heart," said Kerley, a married father of a soon-to-be 4-year-old and another baby on the way. "That's all you've got when everybody's always telling you, 'You might not be tall enough to do this. You might not be fast enough to go get this route.' That's what drives me. So outside people, outside critics, speaking and all that junk, it sits right here," he said, tapping his left shoulder. "It keeps me hungry."

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