Wednesday, August 31, 2011 Updated: September 1, 1:40 PM ET
McKnight can make his case vs. Eagles
By Rich Cimini ESPNNewYork.com
Joe McKnight's nickname last season was "Quicksand" -- or at least that's what his position coach called him.
"Because when he made a mistake, he kept sinking and sinking," said Anthony Lynn, the New York Jets' running backs coach.
Joe McKnight leads the Jets in rushing this preseason.
McKnight's rookie year included conditioning and fumbling issues and, by his own admission, a confidence problem. You might say he was a stick in the mud.
These days, "Quicksand" is just plain quick. He's the Jets' leading rusher in the preseason, which concludes Thursday night against the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium in the annual JV Bowl between the two teams.
Both teams are planning to rest their starters, so aside from a few spots at the bottom of the roster, there really isn't much on the line in terms of personnel decisions. But for a player like McKnight, who figures to see significant action, it's an opportunity to make one last case for a role in the Jets' offensive rotation.
The Jets need to take a hard look at McKnight because he brings a dimension they don't have -- speed out of the backfield. Aside from wide receiver Santonio Holmes and maybe tight end Dustin Keller, there isn't a take-it-to-the-house threat on offense.
"I think, as far as a role, good things happen when you put the ball in his hands," Rex Ryan said. "He's one of the fastest athletes in the league. He is an explosive athlete, so you want to get him some touches."
McKnight drives his coaches nutty at times because of his decision-making -- if a hole closes, he'll stop and reverse field -- but his raw talent can't be ignored. If he continues to progress, it could force the coaching staff into a delicate decision involving LaDainian Tomlinson.
Tomlinson, the third-down back and Shonn Greene's primary backup, hasn't displayed the same burst as he did last preseason -- only 20 yards on 11 rushes. Maybe he's saving himself for the regular season -- a player with his resume deserves every benefit of the doubt -- but if he can't be the Tomlinson of early 2010, it could mean more McKnight.
"Shonn will need a blow, LT will need a blow, and I envision Joe working between the two of those guys," Lynn said.
They will give McKnight a small package of plays each week, hoping to utilize his open-field ability. He's not the most physical guy around, but as Lynn explained, "He's a space guy. He's an explosive kid that functions well in space."
A year ago, McKnight was more of a space cadet, annoying the coaches with his lack of focus. Thanks to HBO's "Hard Knocks" series, the entire country received a behind-the-scenes look at the coaches' frustration with him.
"Last summer was hell," said McKnight, describing the difference between then and now: "Confidence is a big plus for me. Last year, I didn't have much confidence. A year can change a lot."
McKnight, who has rushed for 95 yards and a 4.5-yard average in three games, will share the workload Thursday night with rookie Bilal Powell. They'll be taking handoffs from a third-string quarterback, rookie Greg McElroy, and running behind a second-string line. The only front-line players expected to play are rookie defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and nickel back Kyle Wilson.
Yeah, it's going to be one of those nights. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, the new $100 million man, might get more face time on TV than the actual quarterbacks in the game. But for McKnight, it's important. He finally has some momentum, distancing himself from his 2010 debacle.
"He still has his ups and downs, but he recovers a lot faster," Lynn said. "This year, he has some resolve and he can work his way out of it quicker."
Say goodbye to "Quicksand."