Jets' struggling tackle Wayne Hunter under fire

New York Jets tackle Wayne Hunter #78 talks

New York Jets tackle Wayne Hunter #78 talks with a teammate during a break at during practice at the Atlantic Health Training Facility. (June 6, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/Joe Epstein)

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- After years of selling Wayne Hunter as the "best backup tackle in football," Rex Ryan made it clear the offensive lineman might not be worthy of a starting job after all.

Asked point-blank if he is committed to keeping Hunter as the starting right tackle for the regular-season opener against Buffalo, Ryan danced around the topic. But his underlying message was impossible to ignore.

"I'm going to say this: We're committing to putting a good team on the field," Ryan said. "We're loaded in some spots and the competition is elevating people's play. I think that's a great thing. But to sit back and say, 'This guy's definitely the starter,' I'm not ready to do that."

Hunter's protection issues have been a hot-button topic since he emerged as Damien Woody's replacement last season. The beleaguered Hunter shouldered criticism for Saturday's loss to the Giants, as his turnstile blocking led to three sacks by Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck. To make matters worse, Hunter's shaky protection also was exposed Monday in practice.

As the jumbo tight end on a second-team rep, Hunter was beaten by second-year linebacker Garrett McIntyre for a sack of Tim Tebow. It was one of 11 unofficial practice sacks, but it was all the more glaring considering Saturday's outcome.

Hunter, however, said he isn't going anywhere. At least not yet.

"My confidence is fine," he said curtly, adding that his mistakes were all technique related and "correctable. I just got to get better at my craft and I'll be fine. I'm the starting right tackle until they tell me otherwise."

Ryan said it's possible that backup right tackle Austin Howard will get some first-team snaps Sunday against Carolina, which would be a big vote of confidence considering it's the starters' final dress rehearsal for the Sept. 9 opener.

Howard took several first-team reps at right tackle Monday and played left tackle with the second-stringers. Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano said he plans to use seven or eight linemen against Carolina, but "we want to get the core guys, whoever they are, more plays."

Ryan didn't rule out looking elsewhere for a right tackle. "I'm not going to paint myself in a corner because things happen," he said when asked if the starter will be Hunter or Howard. "I like to see guys compete and earn their jobs out there."

Hunter's teammates, however, were quick to voice their support. Even Mark Sanchez, who consistently bears the brunt of Hunter's missed blocks, empathized with the lineman.

"I've been there . . . especially my rookie year," the quarterback said. "There had to be times where guys on the team were just like, 'What are we doing with this guy?' That stuff happens to everybody, I don't care who you are. All I can remember is the guys around me building me up, staying positive, having faith in me.

"That's what everybody is doing with Wayne because he's a big, strong guy. He's smart. He's athletic. So he'll get it right, we know he can."

Although left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson was the No. 4 overall draft pick in 2006, the Freeport native said he can relate to Hunter's situation.

"There's a lot of pressure for you to produce, and my first couple of years were rough. They were real rough," Ferguson said.

"I try not to remember those things, but I understand what it is to have the media on your back. I understand what it's like to be attacked. But I guess that's New York."

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