FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — This was as polished a sequence of games that Mike Catapano can remember from a football career that first flourished at Chaminade High.
Activated from the Jets’ practice squad late last year, Catapano injected a mix of speed and enthusiasm to the defense at a pivotal point in the season. He’d found a niche in the Jets’ defense, playing a combined 53 snaps in his first three games, producing a quarterback hit in a win over the Dolphins and then getting his first sack of the season against Eli Manning in a win over the Giants.
“I went from getting some play time to all of a sudden seeing tons of reps,” Catapano said. “I was probably playing the best and rushing the best. I was really coming along, and then, unfortunately, it got cut short.”
On the series after his sack of Manning, Catapano experienced a sharp pain in his right foot and had to be taken off the field. He had suffered a Lisfranc injury that would eventually require surgery, ending his 2015 season. But Catapano reached a major milestone this week, returning to the practice field for the first time since the injury and reinvigorating his career. And his spirits.
“It feel great, just knocking the rust off,” he said after Wednesday’s practice, his second since returning from the injury. “It’s been a while since I suited up. It’s been a long offseason getting my health back, but I’m feeling great now, taking it day by day. I’m 100 percent, just getting into the swing of things, feeling all the movements and everything.”
The Jets are working in Catapano, and he estimates he’s in on around 25-30 percent of the defensive snaps. He has switched positions and responsibilities this year, moving from defensive end to strong-side outside linebacker, but appears to be adapting nicely.
“It’s a little new, and I’m just learning,” he said. “I’m a full-time outside linebacker. Some of it’s the same [as last year], but there’s a little more to it, and I’m adapting and learning how it fits. But I think it’s going to be a really good transition for me. I think this is a role that I can really excel at.”
He’ll have some occasional responsibilities in pass coverage on tight ends and running backs, but the primary focus is the one he loves most.
“I know they want me to get after the passer, and that’s what I do really well,” he said.
Catapano, who grew up in Bayville, showed plenty of promise as a fullback and defensive end at Chaminade, and wound up playing at Princeton, where he developed into a promising pass rusher and was selected as the Ivy League’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
A seventh-round draft pick of the Chiefs in 2013, Catapano spent two seasons in Kansas City before being released last year. He was signed to the Jets’ practice squad on Sept. 8 and was activated Nov. 21 after Sheldon Richardson was injured. Catapano showed enough that game against the Texans to prompt the Jets to release former first-round pick Quinton Coples the day after a 24-17 loss.
The injury was a setback, albeit a temporary one. Once he healed in the offseason, Catapano went through his usual routine of working with renowned mixed martial arts fighter Derek Panza, who runs a facility in Syosset.
“I’ve been kickboxing every offseason since I was 17 years old,” said Catapano, who turns 26 on Aug. 17. “That helps my hands and aggressiveness, and that translates over to pass rushing. [Panza] is one of a kind. He pushes me. He gets my hands fast. Hands and hips together is pass rushing, so I believe that it translates over to football.”
Now that he’s back on the field, Catapano plays to stay there — and with the Jets — for a long time.
“I think this is a great fit for me,” he said. “I think they’ve liked what they’ve seen out of me so far, and I just want to keep getting better and better and show I can be a tremendous player for this team.”