FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Defensive end Jake McDonough is one of the few undrafted free agents to make the transition from the rookie minicamp to a spot on the Jets' roster as OTAs wear on.
Life is tenuous there, but no matter what happens, McDonough counts himself as lucky. Just four years ago, a mysterious illness nearly took him out of competition altogether.
“I had a few offers to play college ball and I chose Iowa State,” McDonough recalled. “I redshirt my freshman year and then following that I got really sick. Lost 70 pounds, had to fight back from that.”
Doctors weren’t sure what was making him so ill, and extensive tests were done at a hospital in Des Moines. The results showed some food allergies -- he must avoid dairy products -- and some less common problems.
“They tested me out and found out it was food allergies and they also found traces of a parasite,” McDonough said. “I got calls from the government trying to find out where I’d been. I was like, 'I hadn’t been anywhere -- Iowa.' I had a parasite, gallstone and a food allergy all at the same time. One thing compounded, one after the next.”
The combination of allergies and giardia knocked McDonough's weight down to 220 pounds at his lowest point. That was a drastic drop; he's now back up to 305 pounds on a 6-foot-5 frame.
He remembers walking into the Cyclones' weight room and weighing in at 280. The next day he was at 273.
“One day I was at home and stood up to do mow the lawn and passed out,” McDonough said.
Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads, who was new to the job at the time, thought that might be it for McDonough’s Division I career, which was not of paramount importance at the height of the illness.
“He looked sick -- and he acted sick,” Rhoads said. “There were a lot of people involved in it and a lot of opinions were thrown his way for better or for worse. But they got something figured out and he got back on his feet.”
He did get better, but then he had to prove himself as a player all over again. Since he was relatively new to the Cyclones, and there was a new administration under Rhoads, it was a tough spot to be in.
“It was a struggle,” McDonough said. “I was young and adjusting to a new coaching staff.”
McDonough had initially impressed Rhoads by showing up at the new coach's introductory press conference. He's been trying to make that kind of personal connection with the Jets as well. McDonough has sought out his coaches for additional instruction with the playbook, and as a way to get to know them.
Now he’s trying to pick up the defense with the help of Muhammad Wilkerson, and learning that coach Rex Ryan expects his defensive players to know what every position is responsible for in a system where safeties can blitz and even a linebacker like Calvin Pace may play defensive back on a play just to confuse things. At times, it feels like a lot to learn.
“[They want] to see how you respond,” McDonough said, “and if you respond well you’re going to make it.”
McDonough was an All-Big 12 defensive tackle, but the Jets have moved him outside because of his height. Rhoads said McDonough can be immovable in certain schemes.
“When he’s going to put his hands on you, he’s going to knock people back on their heels,” Rhoads said. “He’s one of those naturally strong guys who can move a pile.”
So far, Ryan likes what he sees. He joked that he accidentally called McDonough by Mike DeVito’s name. DeVito might not be with the Jets anymore, but Ryan regarded the defensive lineman highly and any rookie would see it as a compliment.
“I like him. He’s tough, he competes,” Ryan said of the 23-year-old McDonough. “If he doesn’t make the team, it’s not because of his work ethic or anything else. He’s a hard-playing kid.”
It was a sentiment that Wilkerson -- thrust into a leadership role after the loss of several high-profile veterans -- echoed in the locker room after one OTA practice: “He’s definitely a hard worker. But he’s a rookie so he’s going to make mistakes but you’ve got to put that behind you.”
Right now, McDonough is clustered with other UFAs and rookies in the middle of that locker room. Some of them will eventually make it through the gauntlet and secure a permanent spot in one of the wood-paneled lockers. He knows he’ll be lucky to make it, but McDonough has faced long odds before.
“I’m very blessed to be here with the Jets,” McDonough said. “They’re giving me a chance to show what I can do.”