FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Muhammad Wilkerson is a quiet guy, appearing almost shy during interviews and deflecting praise.
The New York Jets' big defensive lineman is anything but timid on the field.
Wilkerson is developing into a dominating force in his second NFL season, and while he's not yet a household name, he's a big reason the Jets' once-struggling defence is ranked eighth in the league.
"It's really encouraging just how professional he's been and how coachable he's been," defensive co-ordinator Mike Pettine said Friday. "Here's a guy that's not repeating mistakes, so the learning curve with him is just so much faster."
Wilkerson, a first-round pick out of Temple last year, leads the Jets with four sacks and 26 quarterback pressures, and is fourth with 76 tackles. He has forced three fumbles and returned one for a touchdown. It all has coach Rex Ryan hoping Wilkerson's off-season includes a trip to Hawaii the week before the Super Bowl — if the Jets don't make it there, of course.
"I promise you that Muhammad Wilkerson gets a vote for Pro Bowl from Jacksonville," Ryan said earlier this week. "I don't think there's any doubt about that. It was a dominant performance for Mo. It seems like we say it each week."
Added fellow defensive lineman Mike DeVito: "I can't speak enough good things about him. He's been a true vet from the moment he got here. If he doesn't make the Pro Bowl this year, it's going to be soon."
All that sort of talk makes Wilkerson happy, but again, he's almost made uncomfortable with the kudos.
"I give the credit to (Ryan)," Wilkerson said. "I'm proud to be a Jet. They brought me here. I'm going to continue to play like a Jet and do my best for the defence."
As he did during one drive in the third quarter of the Jets' 17-10 last Sunday.
On first down, he smacked into Chad Henne, who threw an incomplete pass. Wilkerson popped Henne even harder on the next play, causing another errant throw. On third down, Wilkerson blew between two offensive lineman and slammed Henne into the ground for a sack.
"Statistically, he had one sack, but this guy, over and over again, (running) backs are having to pick him up," Ryan said. "It's rare to have an interior lineman get the attention from the backs. Usually that's assigned to an outside edge rusher, but the backs are helping on Mo time and time again. It just shows you what the teams are thinking about this guy.
"What a performance by him."
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Wilkerson showed signs of what was to come near the end of his rookie season last year, when he was routinely standing out in games and finished with three sacks.
"I just wanted to achieve more than I did last year," Wilkerson said, "and have a better season than I did last year and just keep on improving for however many years to come."
So, how do you think you're doing, Mo?
"I think I'm doing pretty good," Wilkerson said, again crediting his coaches and teammates for helping him along.
He spent the off-season trying to improve his technique and learn the inner workings of the defence, focusing on things such as what to do when a guard moves his hands a certain way or how to rebound on a play in which he has gotten beaten by an offensive lineman and still make an impact.
The development of his "football IQ," as Wilkerson called it, has been a product of lots of work with new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar.
"We saw it at the end of last year and he really carried it over this year, and he's playing at such a high level," Pettine said. "But he's doing all the little things well."
There was a scary moment in the off-season, however, when being on the field might have been the furthest thing from Wilkerson's mind.
The defensive lineman was in a car accident in New Jersey on June 23, when he struck another vehicle and his truck flipped over and came to rest on its roof. Wilkerson needed stitches in one of his forearms, but otherwise came out OK — as did the passengers in the other vehicle. Alcohol was not a factor, according to police, and Wilkerson was cited for careless driving.
Wilkerson said he never worried in the days following the accident that what he's achieving now might not be possible.
"I love the game of football," he said. "I just knew that I would approach this year differently and move on, and play better than I did last year."
While the fans see it in games, Wilkerson's teammates have witnessed the leap he has made every day this season.
"Man, the sky's the limit for Mo," nose tackle Sione Po'uha said. "This guy is going to be a great player, and more than that, he's a great individual. He's already just a phenomenal player. I mean, you see the plays he makes out there and you might think he's a great player on Sunday, but he's a beast in practice, too."
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