Kerley looks like something special

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets coach Rex Ryan called him "special" in the first week of practice. One of the first words out of quarterback Mark Sanchez's mouth when asked about him was "baller." Even hard-to-impress special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff is sold.

Jeremy Kerley, welcome to the Jets.

"I think he'll be our punt returner right off the bat from what I'm seeing," Westhoff said, "certainly have the best shot at it. And then also maybe our kickoff returner too. He could do both."

A week into camp, and the starting punt and kick return jobs are a rookie's to lose.

The wide receiver fresh out of TCU has been inserted into the first team as the slot receiver, and is impressing his coaches with his ability to get open. At one point during Friday's practice, Kerley made a grab in the end zone, but landed just out of bounds.

"Talk to him LT!" yelled offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

LaDainian Tomlinson, another TCU product, had been watched Kerley throughout his college career. Already impressed, he was pleased to see the Jets select the versatile playmaker in the fifth round.

"At TCU, we always have to feel like we have to outwork everybody else," Tomlinson said. "And I think Jeremy has that right attitude that he needs to be good in this league. He's out here working hard, he's learning, and as you see people are starting to notice what kind of player he can become."

When asked about Tomlinson, who was in an adjacent tent conducting an interview with reporters, Kerley emphasized LT wasn't just an ordinary player. And now "that superstar" is showing him the way as a professional.

"I'm underneath his wing," Kerley said. "He's taken a lot of pressure off my shoulders just telling me to play calm and comfortable. He's a big role model."

And Kerley has been using his reps wisely. He calls himself a football rat, "Anywhere the ball is, anywhere the cheese is, that's where I'm going to be," he said.

"Coming from college playing in the NFL, you know it's a faster speed up here so just everything was coming to me easy in college," Kerley said. "Now I have to study a little harder, but it's been fun."

Kerley, who was used in the wildcat and returned punts at TCU, might remind many of Brad Smith, who signed with the Buffalo Bills last week. Smith was one of Westhoff's favorite players -- once declaring he'd quit if Smith left -- but Westhoff is practical.

He has a placard in his office that reads, "You can't win with players you don't have." Westhoff even lobbied to get Kerley to the Jets before the draft.

"I think a lot of him, I think he's got it," Westhoff said. "He was a very good player at a very good program."

Now Kerley is winning the rest of his coaches and teammates over.

"He's just a baller," Sanchez said. "He's doing great -- first team, second team, special teams. There's always one big surprise at camp and for a guy that didn't know much of the playbook coming in, he's picked it up very fast. He's just a 'Yes, sir. No, sir' kind of guy. He puts his head down, goes to work, takes coaching really well and players really like him.

"That could be huge, and with Jerricho leaving, this could be a big opportunity for him."

It's a sentiment Ryan echoes despite having no rookie minicamp or OTAs to build this reputation over time. Kerley has demanded attention through his considerable ability on the football field.

"I think you guys have seen, as well as I do," Ryan said, "that Kerley's got a chance, I think, to be something special."

Jane McManus is a reporter and columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Information from ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini was used in this report.