Commentary

For Wilkerson and Ellis, it's showtime

Jets rookie linemen have excelled in practice, now it's time to perform on the big stage

Updated: August 15, 2011, 1:16 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

HOUSTON -- For all their headline-making moves and non-moves over the past two weeks, the New York Jets expect to open the season with only five new faces in key roles -- two aging wide receivers and a trio of rookies.

Plaxico Burress, the most ballyhooed addition, is nursing a sprained ankle and won't play Monday night in the preseason opener against the Houston Texans. Fellow wideout Derrick Mason will see limited action, putting the spotlight on the rookies -- defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis, and receiver/returner Jeremy Kerley.

Wilkerson already has been anointed the starting defensive end, and that's unusual on a veteran-laden team like the Jets. Barring injury, he will be only the second rookie since Darrelle Revis in 2007 to start on opening day. The other was Mark Sanchez, and he had to win his job in a summer-long quarterback competition.

The Jets are expecting big things from Wilkerson, a first-round pick from Temple who already has surprised the coaches with his ability to two-gap -- a technique that usually takes time to master. Wilkerson is learning quickly, so quickly that he has become a sounding board for Ellis.

"I'll tell you, both of them are really sharp," Rex Ryan said of his two wide bodies, a combined 660 pounds of run-stuffing potential. "These are sharp guys. They must do a lot of studying off-the-field because they're dialed in, both of them. They try to get better each day and you see that. That's why I'm excited so much about these young guys."

Wilkerson and Ellis, who first met on a pre-draft visit to the Minnesota Vikings, are rooming together in training camp. They talk X's and O's, with Ellis usually asking the questions. Wilkerson is more familiar with the scheme because he played in a similar system in college and because he received a playbook immediately after he was drafted.

Ellis, like most draft picks around the league, didn't receive a playbook until the lockout ended. Because Wilkerson lives in Linden, N.J., he drove to the Jets' Florham Park facility, the day after the draft, when the lockout temporarily was lifted.

"I try to help as best I can, but I'm really learning a lot from guys like Sione [Pouha] and [Mike] DeVito," Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson is under immense pressure. The Jets parted ways with the venerable Shaun Ellis, in large part, because they feel Wilkerson can step in from Day 1 -- a tall order for a rookie who didn't play in the SEC or the Big Ten, or any other power conference.

Even though he has impressed in practice, Wilkerson has yet to face NFL blocking schemes in a game situation. Ellis, a third-round pick, faces a bigger challenge because he played college ball at Hampton (Va.), an enormous jump to the NFL.

Less than a year ago, Ellis was playing before crowds of 5,000. Now he makes his NFL debut on ESPN's "Monday Night Football."

"I try not to think about it too much, because I might get overwhelmed," he said. "I'm used to playing in front of 5,000 fans, and now I'll be playing in front of the nation on TV and God knows how many fans. I try to keep it simple."

Ellis (6-foot-5, 345 pounds) has impressed with his raw power, but he must learn to lower his pad level. He plays too high, as coaches like to say, and it's difficult to win battles in the trenches when you're giving away leverage. He works on that every day in practice, working in the "chutes" -- an apparatus designed for linemen to stay low.

This game represents a milestone for Ellis, who nearly jeopardized his pro future with a felony assault charge from more than a year ago. The charge still is pending, with a trial scheduled for November. Because he's a non-U.S. citizen, born in Jamaica, he faces deportation if convicted of the felony.

"It's been a long road and it's been a tough road," Ellis said. "I made mistakes in the past and it's part of the learning process. With any young adult, you make mistakes. I've tried to learn from them. It's kind of surreal, being here, but I worked my butt off. I knew what I wanted to do. It was just a matter of getting there, being relentless."

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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