Summer class is about to commence for the Jets offense at SUNY Cortland. New O-coordinator Tony Sparano liked the retention of his students in the spring, but the pop quizzes should only get more difficult going forward.
“It’s been really interactive in the classroom. We try to keep them on their toes,” Sparano told me in the spring. “I’ll ask a lot of questions and demand answers and get quick answers from them. They don’t want to be wrong. They’re competitive and I like that about them.”
Mark Sanchez was a prized pupil and performed well in early sessions, but the Jets starter will ultimately be graded in the fall and the winter. His 26 pass TDs in 2011 almost equaled the combined total of his first two pro seasons (12 in 2009, 17 in 2010), but the 26 turnovers (18 interceptions, eight fumbles) were a career-high.
“What Mark’s been doing a really good job of right now is making good clean decisions out there with the football in his hand,” Sparano said in June.
While the ball will be released from Sanchez’s right hand, the transformation in his legs has been overlooked outside the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center.
“I see a tremendous increase in his lower-body strength right now. He’s gotten stronger all over the place, but his lower-body strength — which is really what good quarterbacks need to throw the ball well — I think has improved a lot and that’s really carried over on to the field,” Sparano said. “You see him throw the deep ball or you see him throw the 18-, 20-yard out routes right now with good zip on the football.”
Sparano celebrated with a fist pump after Sanchez delivered a red zone rocket to TE Dustin Keller in the back of the end zone on the first day of minicamp.
“Sometimes the ball can end up over the top, but sometimes it has to go on the back shoulder in a tight spot,” Sparano said. “Mark threw it there and Dustin adjusted well to it. That’s a heck of a play.”
The Jets were hamstrung last season by the costly turnovers and a lack of chunk plays in the passing game. Teams didn’t respect the offense’s vertical prowess and that meant less room to operate. But the Green & White went out and signed Chaz Schilens in free agency and then drafted Stephen Hill in the hopes they could draw some attention away from game-changing wideout Santonio Holmes and Keller.
“I think athletically Stephen has a lot of outstanding qualities. He’s big, he’s tall, he’s strong, he can run. He does all the those things, but the thing I’ve been most impressed with is his awareness out there,” Sparano said. “His awareness to attack coverages, his awareness to attack press defenders — he’s physical with them. He’s really done a nice job that way. He competes for the ball when it’s in the air.”
Keller is Sanchez’s security blanket — his 65 receptions and 815 receiving yards led the Jets in 2011. Sparano likes to employ multiple-TE sets and he wants to get Keller on the move.
“The more you can use Dustin in different places, I think the better off that we’ll be offensively because he is a weapon and I know that first-hand,” said the former Dolphins head coach.
Joe McKnight proved last season that he was a weapon on kick returns, leading the NFL with a 31.6-yard average. While Shonn Greene figures to be the bellcow, can the muscled-up McKnight become a major contributor on offense in his third season?
“This guy can really run. He is an explosive player. He has good hands but he has good run skills,” Sparano said of the former USC Trojan. “Joe has done a nice job this offseason getting bigger and stronger, and putting weight on and holding weight. That’s been a real positive because he hasn’t lost a step athletically out there from a speed standpoint and he’s gotten bigger and stronger. So that allows you to use him a little bit more in different ways.”
The Jets are big and strong up front along the line, featuring three Pro Bowl players in C Nick Mangold, LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson and RG Brandon Moore. With LG Matt Slauson rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery, Vlad Ducasse stepped in and repeatedly earned praise form head coach Rex Ryan and Sparano.
“Vlad has been working in there with that first group right now and he’s been getting better. The more reps he gets, I think, the more comfortable he starts to feel,” said Sparano. “He’s a big, powerful man, a good athlete. He’s done a nice job for us.”
We will have a lot to monitor on offense once we move our base to SUNY Cortland for the third time in four years and we haven’t even discussed the Tim Tebow dynamic. Sparano, a self-proclaimed no-nonsense coach, gave his unit passing marks in the spring.
“Hard-work ethic. I’ve been very impressed with the way they’ve attacked the offseason program,” he said. “Our offseason attendance has been off-the-charts good, our players have been really in tune and asking good questions, spending a lot of time at it, studying well. And when we get out on the field, they understand it’s about business out there and they’re working pretty hard. I think tempo of the practices has been really good. They’ve been crisp.”
Expectations will be high. Sparano won’t accept careless errors and if the ball is turned over, everybody had better be running like hell.
“I don’t like to look back a whole lot, but you have to sometimes to make progress. I think there was some hidden yardage there on turnovers, turnovers for touchdowns and those types of things,” he said. “It’s a part of our league and the bottom line is if you turn the football over, maybe all of a sudden the guy picks the ball up and gains 30 yards. Well that’s three first downs in a game and it takes an awful lot to gain three first downs in a game.
“What we’re trying to teach here is if the ball is turned over — on the rare occasion that it may happen — we’re going to get as many people to the football as we can and tackle the football. So when that happens in practice, I send every person, every coach, everybody running after the football at that point.”
Tags: Chaz Schilens, Cortland, Dustin Keller, joe McKnight, Mark Sanchez, Santonio Holmes, Tony Sparano
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