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Muhammad Wilkerson's teammates call him "Motron," a nod to Calvin Johnson's "Megatron." "Motrin" wouldn't be a bad nickname, either, considering the amount of pain he inflicts on opposing blockers.
Wilkerson did it again Sunday in Jacksonville, where he was so dominant for the New York Jets that it left teammates buzzing on the flight home. His fellow defensive linemen are a tough group to impress, but some of them couldn't help but gush about the way he manhandled the Jaguars, especially his vintage Motron series in the third quarter.
During the conversation on the plane, Sione Po'uha came up with another nickname.
|Muhammad Wilkerson has flourished in his second NFL season.|
"I call him 'Dangerous,'" Po'uha said. "[That's] what he is -- dangerous. Great player, man. Great player."
In a season of blowout losses, ugly wins, crushing injuries and, of course, the Tim Tebow soap opera, Wilkerson has emerged as one of the few stars in the Jets' universe. He still is so young, only 23, and still has so much to learn, but he has made a frightening leap from last season.
And he was pretty good at the end of last season, his rookie year.
"I don't remember somebody coming in right away and playing at that high a level since [Darrelle] Revis and David [Harris]," defensive tackle Mike DeVito said, referring to the Jets' top two picks in 2007. "He's a stud. There's nothing but upside."
Wilkerson, the Jets' first-round pick in 2011, probably is their most complete defensive lineman since Shaun Ellis was in his prime, in the mid-2000s. The Jets caught some heat for not re-signing Ellis last year and handing his starting job to Wilkerson, a raw kid who played only three seasons at Temple, but they recognized his potential.
Rex Ryan, never shy about lauding his players, believes Wilkerson is worthy of Pro Bowl consideration. His stats don't jump off the page -- a modest four sacks, leading the team -- but the sack total isn't an accurate measure of his impact. He's a disruptor, forcing opponents to alter their blocking schemes.
"If I go to the Pro Bowl or I don't -- hey, hopefully I make it next year," Wilkerson said in a quiet moment at his locker. "I try to work hard and learn something new every day. Eventually, one day, I'll make the Pro Bowl. That's a goal. But it's not something where I'd hang my head down if I didn't make it."
Ryan said he expects Wilkerson to receive a Pro Bowl vote from the Jaguars, adding: "It was a dominant performance for Mo. ... He beat his guy over and over again."
On three consecutive plays in the third quarter, Wilkerson was unblockable. Over a 37-second span, he gave a Reggie White impersonation, blasting quarterback Chad Henne on each play.
First down: The Jets were in a "Bear" front -- eight in the box -- with Wilkerson over left guard Eben Britton. He used a power-speed rush to Britton's outside shoulder, beating him soundly and knocking Henne to the turf. Incomplete pass.
Second down: The Jets switched to the nickel package, but Wilkerson stayed inside at tackle. Once again, he wasted Britton, blowing past him with a swim move. This time, he got an even better lick on Henne. Incomplete pass.
Third down: They stayed in nickel, except they used Wilkerson and Quinton Coples as the only down linemen. Lined up in the A-gaps, they ran an inside twist, with Wilkerson powering between center Brad Meester and right guard Uche Nwaneri. He wrapped his big arms around Henne, burying the quarterback's face mask in his chest and body-slamming him to the ground for a sack.
It's rare to see an interior lineman make that kind of impact.
"That entire series," Po'uha said, "was affected by him."
Technically, Wilkerson is listed as a defensive end, but he's really an interior lineman in the Jets' 3-4 scheme. That hurts his Pro Bowl résumé because he can't match the gaudy numbers of 4-3 ends, although three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown aren't bad.
ProFootballFocus.com, a statistical website that rates players based on all aspects of their respective positions, ranks Wilkerson as No. 2 in the league among 3-4 defensive ends. The only player with a higher rating is J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans.
"Mo is a very dynamic player," safety Yeremiah Bell said. "To watch him grow this year and see the way he's playing, it's really something special. He's really starting to figure it out. I think he's getting comfortable with it. When you do that, you get a lot of confidence. When you're a very confident young guy in this league, you can make a lot of things happen. Mo is doing that."
Wilkerson is the strong, silent type, so you probably will never read any "look at me" quotes in a story about him. He always deflects praise, making sure to compliment his elders, Po'uha and DeVito.
The unselfish attitude comes from his upbringing in New Jersey. Growing up in the tough neighborhoods of Linden and Elizabeth, he was a late bloomer in football, never considered a can't-miss kid. He wasn't a pampered recruit, never had coaches beating down his door.
"I didn't want to be the guy that was good in high school and ended up the local nobody," he once said.
Wilkerson brought that blue-collar mentality to the Jets, minding his own business and unleashing his Motron on the Eben Brittons of the world.
"He's a special player," Bell said. "I think he's starting to realize that now."