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McKnight looking to live up to Westhoff and Ryan's explicit expectations, secure job as returner

New York Jets rookie Joe McKnight stretches during

New York Jets rookie Joe McKnight stretches during rookie football mini-camp. (April 30, 2010) Credit: AP

Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff didn’t want Antonio Cromartie. He wanted Joe McKnight. And despite the fact that McKnight was 50-yards away, Westhoff made sure the rookie heard what his new boss had to say.

During the middle of the Jets Green & White scrimmage Saturday, McKnight would become Westhoff’s handpicked punt returner for the Jets final play in the special teams session.

Said Westhoff to Cromartie: “Get Joe in there!”

Westhoff let out his preference, his mandate, for everyone to hear -- including the rookie McKnight -- prior to that last play in the Jets first punt return session of the scrimmage. At the conclusion of a session where Westhoff had the punt team run through each prior play up until the point of the returner catching the football – halting the actual return -- the special teams coach made sure to save up one full play with a return. One real play.

He had one player in mind for that play in McKnight. The player that both Westhoff and Rex Ryan have repeatedly said throughout the first week of Jets Training Camp in Cortland is needed on special teams this year due to his athleticism. Said Ryan: “He has an unbelievable amount of athleticism and he has to transfer it over to special teams.”

But McKnight played Westhoff’s selection -- which yielded two raised arms out of disappointment from the would-be returner in Cromartie -- down. McKnight ended up fair-catching the punt at the 17-yard line.

“I didn’t have a reaction. I just knew that I had to get out there and do it,” McKnight said. “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just something that coaches want to see and prove it to them, and it’s up to me to prove it to them.”

After he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, the word regarding McKnight has been one of a rookie who had gotten off to the wrong start in the NFL – not showing his potential. The Jets coaches have openly said that McKnight is not in his potential shape – and it was embarrassingly verified by McKnight’s struggle to pass the conditioning test at the beginning of camp this week.

“I got a lot to prove, and I feel like I am behind right now with the rookie mini-camp and the conditioning tests,” McKnight said. “I really got things to prove.”

Since his arrival on the field at camp, however, whenever McKnight has been brought up by Jet brass to the media, the talk has surfaced around just how much the Jets would like to have him as one of the first team kick returners’. Perhaps, need as a first team kick returner. On Saturday, McKnight worked as a first team returner and was with the second team offense at running back – rushing for nine yards on his first carry. Ryan said he would like to see McKnight “hitting it” more between the tackles out of the backfield.

Ask anyone: it’s all due to that athleticism. That potential athleticism.

Potential he showed at USC. Potential he brought from USC.

Said McKnight: “I feel like it’s nothing different from when I was at SC because practice is just the same way.”

He brought something else to Jets training camp from SC as well. That would be a one-of-a-kind kick returning drill that the SUNY Cortland field saw for the first time Friday.

It’s a drill where McKnight catches simulated kicks from a Juggs Machine, while holding between his arms and shoulder pads anywhere from three to five footballs. At times McKnight attempts to catch the simulated kick while holding on to all of the footballs nursed by his arms. At other times, McKnight purposely drops one of the balls in his arms while attempting to catch the simulated kick.

Just like McKnight’s athleticism, for this Jet team, the drill was something different. Something out there

Something from the far left.

“I learned that at SC,” McKnight said. “We always practiced that right before we went out to practice. I want to do the punt return and do the return job and help out on special teams, come out here and work hard and prove that. That’s the first time I have done that at camp here.”

Whether it be doing what his coach tells him, or practicing what he has perfected in the past at USC, for McKnight the first week of camp was a bit of old and new.

But the one constant was that McKnight as well as Ryan and Westhoff envisioned big time special team contributions from the speedster.

McKnight wants it. Ryan wants it. Westhoff wants it so bad he requested it.

Now it just remains to be seen if the rookie from the far left can put behind his first four months with the Jets, and fill that role. And thanks to that little bit of the old and the new; McKnight now knows what his job is.

“You just have to go out there and handle your business,” McKnight said. “This is your profession.

This is your job.”

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