Even though he's in his eighth season, Wayne Hunter has never felt like a lock for an NFL roster. In the past few seasons of year-to-year deals with the New York Jets, he was always fighting for his spot as a backup on the offensive line. But now he is into his second week as the starter, and Hunter already feels like this is his spot.
"It feels natural, there you go," Hunter said.
Always reliable, always a backup, Hunter's lack of starting experience didn't make Rex Ryan pause when he found out about Damien Woody's decision to retire. The Jets offered Hunter the starting job right away. He's a slow burner, Ryan said, but this is the season he catches fire.
"It's been a long career and this is finally my payoff," said the 6-foot-5, 318-pound Hunter. "I just want to live up to the expectations, I want to live up to the contract."
He recently signed a four-year deal for $12 million, with $5 million guaranteed. Now that his three little girls will have college funds, Hunter can focus on the task at hand.
Replacing Woody may be impossible. The Jets relied on him for his play and his leadership, but Hunter's linemates have seen his work and say he's doing well.
"He's doing a fantastic job," center Nick Mangold said. "Because of the [CBA] rules, he wasn't out there to begin with but when he got in there it was like he didn't miss a beat."
Hunter will be at right tackle next to Brandon Moore, who is currently on the physically unable to perform list after hip surgery and is ready to be eligible to practice. Ryan said he expected to have his right guard out there soon.
"He's doing great," Ryan said. "In the weight room those guys are really excited about Brandon."
No offense to the guys in the weight room, but Moore wants to be back on the field.
"I'm hitting a wall out there," Moore said. "I'm tired of watching, I'm tired of playing the mental games. In my head my footwork is perfect and I never get beat, so I hope my mental game translates to the field. I'm ready to get out there, see it, put it on film."
In the meantime, Vladimir Ducasse has been filling in for Moore. Last season, as a rookie, Ducasse lost the starting left guard spot to Matt Slauson. Some on the team thought Ducasse was better at tackle, but now that he will be the leading backup, with Robert Turner, Ducasse has been showing improvement inside, as well.
"That's the joy of being the backup, you have to learn to be comfortable everywhere," Mangold said.
Hunter played only five full games at right tackle next to Moore in his years as a Jet, and having Moore in the weight room isn't optimal. They need reps together in order to get it right when the regular season starts on Sept. 11.
"It would be nice to have him, but I think Vlad is doing a tremendous job," Hunter said. "Vlad's a different player than he was last year."
Hunter's ability to turn a negative into a positive is one of the reasons he is so valuable to the Jets. Ryan was asked if there would be a competition for the right tackle spot -- he said no right away.
"It's Wayne's," Ryan said.
And so it is.