FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- There was a time when a trip back to Detroit might not have felt like a happy homecoming for Vernon Gholston.
The No. 6 overall pick of the 2008 draft struggled to make the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker. The roughly $20 million in guaranteed money he got as part of his rookie contract was scrutinized against his performance on the field, where he has yet to record an NFL sack.
But now, as his play improves and with his New York Jets coach and teammates on his side, Gholston can look back on those first days with some perspective.
"Everyone got their own path," Gholston said. "Coming into the league with a new position and everything, to say it was the easiest transition or what I wanted it to be, no. But I'm always looking to the future, and I feel I'll be successful in this league one day."
Rex Ryan, who inherited Gholston when the coach arrived in January 2009, said he wouldn't have taken him with that first-round pick. But the training he has done with Gholston is starting to pay off, and Ryan doesn't want to hear Gholston's talents belittled anymore.
"Vernon's not that guy," Ryan said.
So with Ryan's backing and getting more time on the field, Gholston will have 77 friends and family members cheering him on Sunday at Ford Field in the city where he grew up.
"Own little section," Gholston said. "We've got T-shirts and everything. Jets T-shirts."
He has come a long way in his 2½ seasons with the Jets. Gholston has become a special-teams blocker and has moved back to end, although he plays some outside linebacker when needed. But he is still primarily a backup.
"He's playing much better," Ryan said. "Unfortunately for Vernon, he's backing up Shaun Ellis."
Ryan said Gholston has become completely accepted by his teammates, who want to see him get that first sack as much as Gholston does.
"You have guys saying that 'I want to throw the quarterback. I'm going to get him and throw him to Vernon, so he can get the sack, just to get it off his back,' That's what they think of him," Ryan said.
Gholston took a lot of heat for being too soft on tackles. Ryan said that even though he would not have picked Gholston if he'd had the No. 6 pick in '08, he is glad to have him now. The expectations were high, and Ryan said it takes some players longer to develop.
"You're thinking, 'Hey, he's the sixth overall pick [and] you're going to get Lawrence Taylor,'" Ryan said. "There has only been one Lawrence Taylor."
This isn't a simple story of a kid from Detroit returning victorious. It's more complicated than that, but Gholston will be sure to look up at the 77 people in his section and be happy he has made it this far.
"Getting the chance to see me play, I want them to have something to cheer for," Gholson said.