Ryan Kalil has played football for most of his life. He had 12 seasons with the Carolina Panthers and played in the Super Bowl. But even with all that experience, the 34-year-old center was as nervous as a rookie before taking the field for the Jets’ Green and White practice Sunday night at MetLife Stadium.
“Everybody was making fun of me,’’ Kalil said. “I was pacing in the locker room like 30 minutes before everybody else was dressed and ready to go.”
It was his first full practice in team drills since coming out of retirement to sign with the Jets, and he couldn’t have been more excited to get back to playing again. He signed with the Jets on Aug. 1 but didn’t practice fully until Sunday because he needed to learn enough of the playbook to be comfortable with making the protection calls.
Finally, he was back in his element.
“It’s why I came back,” he said. “I love football. I just do. We all do. It took me walking away to know that it was done [but] that I really wanted it not to be done just quite yet. So I’m fired up. I really am. Nervous, obviously, because I want to do well, and I want to play well, and I want to contribute.”
He admitted being rusty — there were a couple of poor snaps, including one that sailed over quarterback Sam Darnold’s head — but started to get the feel for playing again.
“It’s hard to play when you don’t know the plays, and when you don’t know the calls especially,” he said. “All the plays I’ve done before, all the plays I’ve made before. There are just all different terms, all different code names. They don’t have a Rosetta Stone for this. It’s just like learning a new language.”
Kalil’s insertion into the lineup comes at an opportune time for the Jets, who are dealing with injuries to right tackle Brandon Shell (knee) and guards Brian Winters (shoulder) and Kelechi Osemele (pectoral).
Coach Adam Gase said he is encouraged that Winters and Osemele will be ready for the regular-season opener against the Bills on Sept. 8. Having Kalil’s veteran presence will help even more.
Kalil could see action in Saturday’s preseason game against the Saints at MetLife Stadium. The starting offense likely will play the entire first half.
“We’re hoping to be able to do that,” Gase said. “We’d love to be able to get him in there for a few series. We’ll see how this week goes, but that’s the direction we’re going in.”
Kalil played with the Panthers from 2007-18. He had neck and shoulder problems that limited him to a combined 14 games in 2016-17 but played all 16 games last season before announcing his retirement.
His plans changed when Jets general manager Joe Douglas, himself a former college offensive lineman, called to see if Kalil was interested in coming back. He will replace Jonotthan Harrison, who had been slated to start at center.
Kalil hopes to continue getting the playbook down.
“The center, you’re trying to make calls for everybody,” he said. “I’m still just trying to figure it out myself. Some of the plays come faster than others. You want to play fast. When you don’t play fast, you get pushed back, you don’t quite get on a block. Pro football, you got to be on. It’s hard when everything’s going right and you know what to do. It’s that much harder when you’re playing a little hesitant.”