FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Matt Slauson always believed he would be the New York Jets’ starting left guard.
Being able to adequately replace Alan Faneca and not be the weak link on the offensive line was another story.
“I was scared every day,” the imposing and heavily tattooed Slauson surprisingly acknowledged, “all throughout the offseason.”
The Jets were criticized by many fans and media when they cut Faneca, a perennial Pro Bowl selection, during the draft and took the raw but talented Vladimir Ducasse in the second round to replace him. Coach Rex Ryan announced Ducasse and Slauson, a sixth-round pick in 2009, would have an open competition for the starting spot.
But, many assumed it was already a done deal — that it was Ducasse’s job, given his lofty draft position. Slauson never believed it for a minute.
“I knew in my heart that I was going to win the spot, that I was going to win the job,” the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Slauson said.
Just as he predicted, the big guy from Nebraska beat out Ducasse late in training camp.
“My main focus was to not bring the O-line down because last year we got dubbed the best O-line in the NFL, No. 1 rushing team, a great pass-blocking team, and I didn’t want to take a step back,” he said. “And I feel like not only have I not done that, but we’ve gotten better as a group.”
It wasn’t exactly a smooth, mistake-free transition for Slauson, who played in only three games last season. He was beaten badly by Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata for a sack in Week 1 and had some ill-timed holding penalties two weeks later against Miami.
“You look at it and say we know a young guy is going to come in and he’s going to make mistakes,” center Nick Mangold said. “As long as he doesn’t make the same mistake twice, you can live with it. He’s done a great job.”
So much so, that Ryan heaped some lofty praise on Slauson earlier this week.
“I think he’s as good a left guard as there is in our division,” the coach said.
Ryan acknowledged that New England’s Logan Mankins, who hasn’t reported while in a contract dispute, is still the class of the AFC East’s left guards — when he’s playing.
“But Slauson, right now in my opinion,” Ryan said, “I’ll take him with any of these guards that are in our division.”
Slauson was pleased by his coach’s compliments, but he’s hardly satisfied.
“Obviously, I can’t rest on that,” he said. “I’ve got to keep working. I want to be the best guard in the league and obviously that’s going to take a lot of work because there are a lot of great guards out there.”
Offensive line coach Bill Callahan has played a major role in Slauson’s rapid development, discussing things daily on the field and in meeting rooms. The bond between the two developed a few years ago at the University of Nebraska, where Callahan was Slauson’s coach for three seasons.
“It was great because I know from college to now exactly what Bill expects from me, and I know the questions to ask, so I feel that’s huge,” he said. “I feel like if I was on another team and with another O-line coach, I would already be done. And, I attribute all of my success to him.”
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said Slauson would overextend his body at times early this season and defensive linemen beat him with a quick move.
“He’s much more balanced now and he’s playing with his feet up underneath him,” Schottenheimer said.
The Jets would also use blocking schemes that would free someone up to help Slauson. Now, for the most part, he’s on his own.
“He just now, I think, understands things better,” running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. “I think also playing a full game and being in there with the same guys and getting on the same page, especially on protections. That’s the hardest thing for any of us — linemen, running backs, quarterbacks — is to really pick up protections.”
Slauson said he also struggled with reacting to the different players he’d face each week instead of making them react to him.
“Now, I don’t go up and say, ‘In this protection, I’m one-on-one without any help,’ and I freak out,” he said. “Now I know I need to dictate the tempo. I need to dictate the set and the punch, not let him do it first and then react.”
That shaky start and those unfounded fears have all been firmly blocked away.
“My goal wasn’t to come out and be mediocre,” Slauson said. “It was to come in and replace a Hall of Fame guard and play as well as he did.”
Notes: After special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff claimed he invented the onside kick that Denver successfully pulled off against New York two weeks ago, Ryan did some research. He handed out a five-page Wikipedia printout to the media in which he jokingly wrote in Westhoff as the real author of a 1907 book on onside kicks. He also playfully scribbled in linebackers coach Bob Sutton’s name as the inventor of the blitz, instead of Don Ettinger, and Bill “Pop” Callahan the creator of the single-wing formation, not Glenn “Pop” Warner.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.