FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Muhammad Wilkerson is still tentative at times in the New York Jets’ locker room, not wanting to overstep his bounds as a wide-eyed rookie.
Should he laugh at certain jokes? Can he tell some of his own? Does he have to buy breakfast for his teammates?
“He’s slowly coming out,” nose tackle Sione Pouha said with a chuckle. “He’s not sure what he’s supposed to do right now socially. He was asking me where the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts was so he could bring some for the D-line room. I told him not to worry about that. I remember those days when I was timid and worried about making sure everybody’s breakfast sandwiches were right. He’s coming along.”
There have been no signs of shyness on the football field as Wilkerson is playing with the confidence of a veteran. The first-round pick out of Temple got his first NFL sack and safety on the same play last Sunday when he took down Jacksonville’s Luke McCown.
“I was happy and it was a thrill,” said the humble defensive lineman known as “Mo” by his coaches and teammates. “It was a good play, but right now, I just have to move on. That was last week and it’s a long season. I can’t dwell on what I did positive in the previous game. I’ve got to get ready for the next opponent.”
That would be Oakland, assuming he plays Sunday. He was listed as questionable Friday with a shoulder injury suffered against the Jaguars, but coach Rex Ryan thought Wilkerson would play.
“He’s going to be a great player,” defensive end Mike DeVito said. “The way he carries himself, how hard he works, and then his ability to play. It’s like he’s been playing for five years. He knows what’s going on. He’s really advanced and I’ve never seen it from a rookie coming in.”
Wilkerson faced all kinds of pressure the moment the Jets selected him in the first round in April. He was a guy from Temple, not a traditional powerhouse as far as producing NFL stars, and was being counted on to be an immediate contributor to the Jets’ defensive line.
Ryan anointed him a starter early in training camp, and the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Wilkerson wasn’t fazed.
“When he told me that I was going to start, it didn’t add any pressure at all,” he said. “It just made me focus more to play to the best of my ability and play hard and just be the player I’m capable of being.”
There were 10 defensive linemen drafted before Wilkerson, guys with big-time reputations from big-name schools such as Alabama’s Marcell Dareus, Auburn’s Nick Fairley and Illinois’ Corey Liuget. Wilkerson had a terrific career at Temple but was somewhat under the radar playing in a program that once produced perennial Pro Bowl defensive lineman and Jets fan favorite Joe Klecko. Some fans and media wondered if Wilkerson could make the jump quickly from Temple to the NFL.
“That doesn’t bother me at all because I know his talent,” Wilkerson’s father, Alvin, said after his son was drafted. “I know what he’s capable of doing and he’s going to be able to hang out there with the big dogs.”
The Jets thought the same because of his speed, long wingspan and overall athletic ability. Because of the lockout, Wilkerson and his teammates were unable to work out at the Jets’ facility in the offseason, but the defensive linemen got together several times at a nearby high school.
“I could just see it from watching him then,” DeVito said. “I could tell that this guy is going to be an All-Pro someday.”
One huge key was the fact the Jets were able to give Wilkerson a playbook during the brief period that the lockout was lifted before the players got shut out again. Wilkerson, from nearby Linden, N.J., was able to visit the facility and meet with the coaches the day after he was drafted.
“I think he is ahead of the learning curve for a rookie,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “He’s an intelligent kid. He has good football aptitude. He understands it. He’s a kid that can think on his feet. I just think the sky’s the limit with Mo.”
Pettine said the Jets will make sure to keep Wilkerson fresh by rotating in backups Ropati Pitoitua and Marcus Dixon.
“It makes me feel happy that I’m part of something great and happy that those guys trust in me,” Wilkerson said. “I’m glad they feel comfortable with me out there and know that I have some type of ability to help the defense.”
Wilkerson has four tackles in two games, but the safety was a huge play for a few reasons. It put the Jets up 9-0 just a few minutes in against Jacksonville and got his first NFL sack out of the way.
“I’ve never been a player who was worried about sacks,” he said. “I’ve just always felt that when they came, they came. If they didn’t happen, they didn’t happen. You just keep working hard and one will come up. Mine came up early and I’m happy, but I’m moving on.”
But the fact he already has one is significant, especially with the disappointment of a three-year stint by former first-round pick Vernon Gholston fresh in some people’s minds. Gholston was expected to immediately contribute to New York’s pass rush, but never had a sack.
“I don’t think he’ll understand how big that play was for him until later,” Pouha said of Wilkerson. “As time starts ticking, he might have subconsciously felt like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to make a play.’ People might think things about him like, ‘Where is this guy?’ or ‘Is he going to show up?’ That’s when the pressure starts to build up. The fact that he got it done early, he can just relax and play. It’s just a sign of big things to come from Mo.”