Vrentas: Jets' Joe McKnight looking for growth in his third season
Published: Sunday, August 12, 2012
CORTLAND, N.Y. — Joe McKnight might have run “pretty good,” in his own words, in Friday night’s preseason opener. But he was bothered by his final carry of the game.
The Jets’ third-year running back lost a yard, driven back by a gang of Bengals defenders late in the 17-6 loss, and he was disappointed in himself.
“We can’t afford to lose yards when we are down in a position like that,” he said. “We’re trying to get all the yards we can get, and I kind of ran backwards. It’s something I can’t do toward the end of the game.”
Every yard and every carry count to McKnight because he’s trying to earn a role in the new offense. He became a dynamic kick returner last year, but he wants to contribute more to the team, beyond the tally of 323 rushing yards he managed across his first two seasons.
And it’s clear he has competition. Shonn Greene is the starting “bellcow,” but McKnight also appears to have been leapfrogged on the depth chart by second-year back Bilal Powell.
Powell took the reps as the Jets’ third-down back, used on all four of the starting offense’s third downs Friday night. McKnight’s first plays were with Tim Tebow and the second-team offense, and he also played with Greg McElroy and the third string.
Coach Rex Ryan, though, has said roles won’t be declared until the end of the preseason. He praised McKnight, who had seven carries for 32 yards and three catches for 34 yards Friday, for playing “extremely well.”
“I feel like it is still wide open,” McKnight said. “I’ve got to be more consistent just to be that third-down back and work on my pass protection. Bilal is a great pass protector, and that’s something I’ve got to work on.”
McKnight says he’s been “up and down” in camp, so he’s hoping for a strong finish. He sat out with food poisoning one day and later suffered a stinger. His toughest day was last Monday, when he and safety D’Anton Lynn — the son of McKnight’s position coach — got into an on-field fight that drew in about 20 teammates and spilled over to the sideline.
At the tail end of a carry, Lynn gave McKnight an extra shove after he was out of bounds, and McKnight reacted by spiking the football at Lynn’s helmet and swinging at him. It was the first of a brief rash of practice-field skirmishes. Ryan decried the fights, at one point telling the media, “I don’t need a guy throwing a football.”
McKnight admits that his emotions got the best of him, and he called it “a learning experience.” He says he is trying to grow, both physically and mentally, in a critical third season.
“I’m just trying to stay focused and be more of a people person,” McKnight said. “I’m trying, but it’s kind of hard, because I’ve been to myself all my life. So I’m trying to come out of my shell.”
That is a personal goal, not necessarily sparked by one event or advice from one person.
The former fourth-round pick out of USC wants better results than his first two seasons.
“I just want to try something new,” he said. “I felt like things weren’t working that good for me last year being to myself. Just everything, in how I was approaching everything. It was not the right way. I was very negative. Not to anybody else, but to myself.”
McKnight says he sees improvement. He thinks the game has slowed down, and he feels good running between the tackles now. He’s at his target playing weight of 205 to 207 pounds after playing at 195 last year.
But he knows he needs to be more consistent. He’s also working on improving his technique in pass protection, making sure he stays his stance to “punch and shoot,” so he doesn’t get beat.
“I’m still trying to catch Coach Sparano’s eye,” McKnight said, referring to the offensive coordinator. “It is still my make-or-break year. I want to do good if I want to be back here next year.”