By DENNIS WASZAK Jr., AP Sports Writer
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) _ Antonio Garay used to scoot around San Diego in a little, red Smart Car with huge Hello Kitty faces decorating each door.
The funny photos of the former Charger and current New York Jets nose tackle squeezing his 6-foot-4, 320-pound frame into the attention-grabbing but environmentally friendly vehicle were all over the Internet a year ago.
But, new Jets teammate Quinton Coples had no idea– until he was shown the proof.
“Wow,” a laughing Coples said, shaking his head in disbelief. “That says a lot right there. I need to speak to that guy about this, like ASAP!”
The 33-year-old Garay is one of the newest, most-experienced– and, perhaps, most fun-loving– members of the Jets’ revamped and close-knit defensive line that is considered perhaps New York’s biggest strength heading into training camp in a few weeks.
“I’ve been trying to keep a lot of that on the down-low,” said a smiling Garay, in his second stint with the Jets after signing as a free agent in March following four seasons with the Chargers. “I’ve been downplaying the car and all that– because they told me that Quinton Coples is a big Pikachu fan, so I didn’t want to steal any of his thunder.”
Well, he no longer has the Hello Kitty car, but Garay still drives a Smart Car, a red and black one that defensive line coach Karl Dunbar says is “about the size of my desk.”
All the jokes and jabs –such as Garay begging rookie first-rounder Sheldon Richardson to leave his T-shirt on at all times– have made for some lighthearted moments among the Jets’ defensive linemen this offseason.
“You never know what you’re going to get when you walk into that room because we have a bunch of comedians in there,” Dunbar said. “It’s a pretty good room, we’re having fun and there’s already a lot of camaraderie with that group.”
That’s even after allowing Mike DeVito and Sione Po’uha, both respected and productive team leaders, to leave as free agents.
There are rising stars such as Coples and Muhammad Wilkerson, the savvy and silly vet in Garay and youngsters such as Richardson, Kenrick Ellis and Damon Harrison looking to make their marks.
Dunbar is also interested in seeing how a few others such as Lanier Coleman, Jake McDonough, Junior Aumavae and Tevita Finau perform in camp in Cortland, N.Y.
“I’m excited about the group I have,” Dunbar said. “I’m not going to try to sit here and downplay it.”
Dunbar certainly knows talent when he sees it. Now in his second season on Rex Ryan’s staff, Dunbar spent the previous six years in Minnesota and helped turn the Vikings’ defensive line into arguably the best in the NFL with Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, Ray Edwards and Jared Allen leading the way.
Minnesota allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL during Dunbar’s tenure there, and the Vikings were the first team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to lead the league in rushing defense for three straight years. The Jets finished a disappointing 26th against the run in Dunbar’s first year, but now the goal is to be No. 1.
“When we assessed our defensive line after the season was over and after free agency and we lost a couple of guys, we decided that, if you have big guys who can run, this defense could be phenomenal,” Dunbar said. “I think we did that by adding Sheldon with the 13th pick and then adding Garay, I really like where we stand right now.”
Added Harrison: “It’s crazy, man. The athleticism of this line is so scary. This season is going to be fun.”
And it all starts with Wilkerson, the team’s first-round pick in 2011 who has consistently improved in his first two seasons and played well enough last season to garner Pro Bowl consideration. Individual success will come, Wilkerson believes, because of the way the defensive line expects to play.
“We know Coach Dunbar had dominant guys (in Minnesota) and we want to be dominant _ not like them, but in our own way,” Wilkerson said. “We want to be one of the most dominant fronts in the league.”
Coples will be sliding from the defensive end spot he mostly played as a rookie last season to alternating between outside linebacker and the line. Last year’s first-round pick led the team in sacks with a modest 5 1-2, and he and the Jets are expecting more this season.
“I’m just looking at getting to the quarterback and I think that’s what this team looks for from me,” Coples said. “And I want to make sure that each and every day I’m working at that, whether it’s playing D-line or outside linebacker.”
While sacks are the sexy statistic, Dunbar insists he doesn’t get caught up in the numbers. Last season, the Jets finished tied for 25th in the NFL with 30 sacks, but Dunbar– as Ryan has often said– believes the key to a dominant defense is controlling the run and putting pressure on the quarterback.
“Everybody loves the sack, but you can’t get them every down, every day,” Dunbar said. “The thing we work on as a team and understand is that we’re going to be disruptive and if the sacks come, they come. But we can’t get frustrated just because the media is saying we’re not getting sacks. If we can force your quarterback into bad decisions with our big guys, I’m just as happy.”
Dunbar and the players also think talk about whether the Jets primarily play a 3-4 defensive front or a 4-3 is misguided. To them, sometimes what you see isn’t necessarily an indicator of the team’s approach.
“Truth is, we play different fronts and everybody on our D-line can play multiple positions,” Wilkerson said. “So it doesn’t really matter with that 3-4 or 4-3 stuff. Me, Snacks (Harrison) and Q (Coples) _ we all can play any position.”
It’s that mix of athletic big men up front that the Jets think will make it tougher this season for opponents.
“They have to respect all four of us, or all three, or whoever’s down there at the end of the day,” Coples said. “That’s what gives us the potential to be great, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”
Dunbar believes this Jets group has “the potential to be better” than the ones he had in Minnesota. But he knows there’s plenty of work still to be done– beyond all the laughs.
“Bill Parcells used to say it all the time: `You haven’t done it yet,’ and this group hasn’t done it yet,” Dunbar said. “We have to get out on the field and do it, and then maybe 10 years from now, we can look back and say, `Yeah, this was a pretty good group.’
“We’re in the position where we have some really nice pieces and now the pieces have to show up.”
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