Can Ivory be a Gang Green machine?

8/16/2013 - NFL Chris Ivory New York Jets + more

The mystery back is a thick, powerful man, but he speaks softly and chooses his words carefully. Yet there is a hushed bravado about him.

"I'm looking to have a great season," Chris Ivory said during a private moment at training camp.

He was asked to define "great." He paused for five seconds.

"I can't find the word I'm looking for," he said. "Just ... great."

Ivory is a mystery back because he played college ball at Tiffin University in Ohio, far away from the bright lights of the sport. Because he never became a regular contributor for the New Orleans Saints despite flashes of brilliance. And because there are mixed opinions about him in the NFL scouting community.

The New York Jets like him. They liked him enough to trade a fourth-round draft pick and hand a three-year, $6 million contract to a player who barely carried the ball more than Tim Tebow did last season.

Ivory was the Jets' most important veteran acquisition of the offseason, an upgrade over Shonn Greene -- or so they believe. They expect Ivory to be a 200-carry runner, the CEO of the backfield committee.

The mystery back remained a mystery in training camp because he missed two weeks of practice and the first preseason game with a pulled hamstring. But the curtain gets pulled back Saturday night at MetLife Stadium, where Ivory is expected to make his Jets debut against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Ivory might be the most intriguing player on the Jets' roster because he has the attributes of a Marshawn Lynch. He has the size (6 feet tall, 222 pounds), the speed (two touchdown runs over 50 yards) and the power (4.7 yards after contact per carry in 2012). But what separates great backs from wannabes is dependability. It's the quality that made Curtis Martin so great. He wasn't the flashiest runner, but he was there week after week after week, no matter how much of a beating he took.

That's the question about Ivory. The man has only 256 career carries, including just 40 last season.

"I don't know what he can do over the course of 16 games because he's never played it," running backs coach Anthony Lynn said. "But the times they used him, I thought he was really productive. I love the way he runs. He has a violent running style and he's explosive for a big back."

Lynn knew of Ivory when he was in high school. Lynn grew up in Texas, knows the state's rich high school history and heard about this kid who was tearing it up in Longview.

"All of a sudden," Lynn said, "he fell off the face of the earth."

Ivory went to Washington State, but stuff happened there. He missed games due to injuries and he missed time because he went home to tend to his ailing mother, who overcame a near fatal bout with meningitis.

In 2009, Ivory was allegedly involved in an off-campus fight in which a man was struck in the head with a bottle. Later, when Ivory overslept and missed a team meeting, he was booted off the team.

He ended up transferring to Tiffin, a Division II school in Ohio. He doesn't want to discuss the fight, which led to a second-degree assault charge.

"That's over, it's in the past," Ivory said. "It's a situation where they didn't want me anymore."

Ivory signed with the Saints as an undrafted free agent, only a few hours from his Texas home, and he ended up rushing for 716 yards as a rookie. He was a feel-good story, but the Saints didn't feel good enough about him to make him a cog in the backfield. There were nagging injuries, including a cranky hamstring, and he was overshadowed by a crowd of backs, which included Reggie Bush and, later, Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles.

"I never felt lost, but I didn't like the situation at times," Ivory said. "At the same time, you have to understand there are phases you have to go through, being undrafted. They had guys they drafted, guys they had confidence in. Me, just coming in, I had to build their confidence and it took a little more time."

Ivory was an afterthought last season, all that physical talent on the bench.

"He's a ball-in-hand kind of guy, meaning his play without the football wasn't rare or special," said an AFC scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Learning wasn't easy for him and he's average as a third-down pass-catcher, but as an early-down runner he has good skills."

The Jets will sign up for that. Without a strong running game, Mark Sanchez (or Geno Smith) has no chance. Mike Goodson never made it to camp because of undisclosed personal reasons, and Joe McKnight can't be counted on. So, basically, it's Ivory and Bilal Powell.

Ivory will be fun to watch because, unlike Greene, who never broke that many tackles, he will make yards after initial contract. Consider: Ivory was credited with 12 missed or broken tackles in 40 attempts last season, according to ProFootballFocus. Greene, who signed with the Tennessee Titans in March, had only 15 in 276 carries.

Asked what it's like to tackle him, Ivory smiled.

"Hard," he said. "I wouldn't want to tackle me."

Privately, the Jets believe Ivory has the ability to be a top-10 back. GM John Idzik, who made the trade for Ivory, was in Seattle when the Seahawks gave up a pair of draft picks for Lynch. He had worn out his welcome in Buffalo, but was revitalized by the change in scenery.

Clearly, Ivory believes in himself even if others don't.

"I'll always have doubters," he said. "I like proving the doubters wrong."