FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Bilal Powell speaks in hushed tones, a quiet and humble guy who’d prefer the spotlight to shine elsewhere.
The New York Jets running back comes off as shy and almost uncomfortable while talking about himself.
No smiles or jokes. All business.
“It is funny,” coach Rex Ryan said Friday. “For a guy that is as aggressive as he is as a player, I think you would maybe expect a different personality.”
Well, after his breakthrough performance last Sunday, Powell might have to prepare himself for more attention, on the field and off.
Powell ran for a career-high 149 yards on 27 carries in the Jets’ 27-20 win over the Buffalo Bills. He ranks second in the AFC with 226 yards rushing, and will head to Tennessee on Sunday as New York’s undisputed top running back with Chris Ivory sidelined with a hamstring injury.
“The guy just works hard,” right guard Willie Colon said. “I mean, he just goes to work with kind of a clock-in, clock-out mentality. A humble guy who’s a blue-collar runner with a blue-collar personality.”
Added fullback Tommy Bohanon: “He’s an elusive runner, a guy who can make you miss or run you over.”
Powell is in his third season after being a fourth-round draft pick out of Louisville in 2011. His backstory is intriguing, but one he hasn’t opened up much about.
He was part of street gangs in Florida as a youngster, got shot at and was even stabbed while in high school. Powell’s life turned around after he moved in with his running backs coach’s family, and also found religion.
Today, those troubled times seem like a lifetime ago for the 24-year-old Powell, who is married and has a son, Tav’is, with his wife Jessica.
“He’s had a tough background and everything, but he’s really a tremendous young man,” Ryan said. “But he is extremely quiet. … You don’t need a guy to change his personality, just go out and play.
“He’s earned the respect of everybody in this locker room.”
Powell was a complementary part of New York’s backfield his first two seasons, backing up LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. After Greene left as a free agent and eventually signed with the Titans, the Jets acquired Ivory from New Orleans. New York also signed free agent Mike Goodson, adding a versatile pass-catching threat to a group that also included Joe McKnight.
“That was totally out of my control,” Powell said. “My main purpose was to just come in this offseason and prepare and get ready for the season and put myself in position to where I could help this team win.”
Ivory dealt with hamstring issues almost all of training camp, Goodson was away from the team for personal reasons, and McKnight had health and legal issues that eventually led to him being cut.
And through it all, there stood Powell, who got the bulk of the work during the preseason and was rewarded by being listed No. 1 on the depth chart entering the regular season.
“I just came in more focused this year,” he said. “I just tried to pick up as much of the playbook as I could and that allowed me to go out and play more comfortable and play faster.”
Powell might hold onto the starting spot with a few more games like the one against Buffalo.
“If he won’t say it, I will: He’s going to be one of the best running backs in this league one day,” right tackle Austin Howard said. “He has the potential to do so.”
After a rookie season in which he gained 21 yards on 13 carries, Powell ran for 458 yards last year and saw increased playing time down the stretch. He’s a pass-catching threat with eight receptions this season, and has also proven himself an exceptional pass blocker, both important elements in new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s system.
“Really, he is just a real natural football player,” Mornhinweg said. “Things come easily to him. You teach him something and then he gets it very quickly.”
In the third quarter against Buffalo, he found a huge hole and took off for 27 yards, the longest run of his career. Powell got up and patted the football a few times before flinging it to an official.
Then, he put his head down and simply jogged over to his teammates.
“He doesn’t talk much,” Howard said, “but he lets his reputation build by what he does, not by what he says.”
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(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)