Competing in his third Jets training camp, it's NFL or bust for RB Jonathan Reese. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
Long after the majority of his teammates had changed clothes and gone to lunch, he remained on the field until every hat, shirt and football was signed. Following a recent special teams practice, herds of young fans waited by the practice field exit, hoping to grasp his attention. With beads of sweat covering his face and his helmet in hand, he patiently autographed all of their personal items. He does not have the superstar image of RB Curtis Martin or the notoriety of QB Chad Pennington, but RB Johnathan Reese is an affable, young man that has become a fan favorite for the third consecutive training camp with the New York Jets.
After an illustrious career as the starting tailback for Columbia University, where he became the fifth-leading rusher in Ivy League history with over 3,300 yards and 30 touchdowns, Reese has not been able to translate his college success into the NFL. Initially signing as an undrafted free agent following the 2002 NFL Draft, Reese bounced on and off the team’s practice squad last year and actually made it to the active roster for one game last December before being shuffled back to the practice squad to finish the season. This is something he’d like to change in 2004.
“It’s definitely something I want to go beyond,” Reese said.
Two weeks into training camp, Reese has shouted that message loud and clear. Enduring two-a-day practices on a hot, humid field at Weeb Ewbank Hall can cause players to flash one day and disappear the next. Reese has showed consistency throughout each practice, bursting through the line for long touchdown runs while displaying the heart and determination to succeed.
“He has done a good job. Just watching him compared to his first two years, he is a very powerful runner,” head coach Herman Edwards said of the Ivy League product. “He’s a slashing type runner. When he gets a head of steam, he is going to knock some players down. That’s what you like about the guy, he’s a guy who likes football.”
As many new faces litter the team’s practice field this year in hopes of earning a job this summer, Reese realizes the odds are stacked against him. Graduating from a Division II football program, Reese has only seen limited reps behind RB Curtis Martin and RB LaMont Jordan in camp. However, Reese has taken every opportunity and run with it, literally, as he has left defenders chasing in vain. Reese has been the reason for several loud ovations from the hundreds of fans at practice each day, exhibiting the game-breaking speed and elusiveness that made him a star at Columbia.
“My size is my advantage,” said the 6-1, 220-pound running back. “I have good speed. That’s one of the things that’s helped me out. I have the combination of a bruising style with a little bit of quickness mixed in there.”
The disappointment of being released on the final roster cuts for the past two seasons has not hindered Reese’s desire to win a roster spot with the Jets. After leading the team in rushing last preseason, Reese believes his third year could be the charm. Reese’s likeable personality was evident following a question about his training regiment this off-season.
“I was with the team this year,” said a smiling Reese. The Jets signed him to a contract in late December.
“I jumped a lot of rope, worked on the speed ladders. This is my first real off-season since my junior year in college, where I had a chance to build up, go through a program phase by phase and really improve my strength and speed.”
That strength and speed has clearly stood out this year, as Reese has been one of the bright spots on offense in training camp. As a young back, Reese is in the enviable position of watching and learning the tricks of the trade behind future Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin.
“I just see (Martin) as a relentless competitor,” Reese said. “Everyday, he comes out to practice, works hard. If the coach didn’t (rest him), I’d doubt if he’d come out. I just think he’s a guy who likes to work hard and that has really helped him with his career.”
An aspect that could assist Reese’s career is his versatility. With his previous experience handling kickoff returns in college, Reese may force the team to find room for him on the 53-man roster this year.
“I’m definitely trying to get on special teams,” he said. “Special teams will always improve your stock. Whether its kickoff returns, kickoff or punt coverage, I’m just trying to work hard and get out there.”
That commitment to hard work has been a big plus in the eyes of the coaching staff, who feel Reese has the skills necessary to eventually compete in this league.
“He is always a guy you can depend on,” Edwards said. “He is at a position where there are a lot of good backs there but I think for him to come in with a good attitude is important.”
Questioned on why he’s been unable to earn a roster spot at this point in his career and Reese cites the impatient nature of the NFL.
“They give you so much to learn in such a little amount of time, they (the coaches) really can’t have patience,” Reese said. “In college, you know you’ll be there four years. But (in the NFL), you got to learn it as quickly as possible because there is no second chance.”
If Reese continues to perform like he has throughout training camp this year, a second chance won’t be necessary, as he will find himself surrounded by the same group of fans, signing autographs and being late to lunch.