August 15, 2012
Late-bloomer Powell has been a big camp surprise
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
New York Jets backup running back Bilal Powell stretches following practice Tuesday morning at SUNY Cortland. Powell has been impressive throughout the preseason.
Bilal Powell is hoping for some deja vu this football season.
The second-year running back for the New York Jets has impressed people — most notably, Head Coach Rex Ryan — with his performance in training camp in Cortland. That included last Friday’s preseason opener at Cincinnati, when he picked up 16 yards on five carries and caught one pass for 4 yards.
All this after a rookie season in which he lugged the ball just 13 times for 21 yards.
During his collegiate career at Louisville, it wasn’t until his senior season that Powell, now 23, came into his own. He picked up 1,405 yards on 229 carries (6.1 yards per carry) with 11 touchdowns and caught 18 passes for 158 yards (8.8) and three more TDs en route to first-team All-Big East honors and an invitation to the Senior Bowl.
In his first three collegiate seasons with the Cardinals, he’d collectively totaled 207 carries for 933 yards with eight TDs and caught 27 passes for 186 yards.
Ryan has been consistently complimentary of Powell’s training camp efforts, noting how the 5-10, 204-pounder from Lake Gibson High in Lakeland, Fla., came on strong late in his college career and expressing the hope that Powell’s second pro season will show a similar performance curve as he seeks the backup spot behind Shonn Greene.
“When you look at his path in college, he kind of burst on the scene his last year,” Ryan said of Powell late in the first week of camp. “He kind of had some struggles or whatever, and then burst on the scene. I’m hoping that happens now. It takes a little growing pains, he makes the adjustment necessary and maybe it’s confidence or whatever but right now he seems to be playing with a great deal of confidence.”
Ryan was equally complimentary of Powell’s performance against the Bengals.
“He looks pretty good. We had made, again it wasn’t schemed, but a certain protection and I’m looking over at Powell taking on a defensive end one-on-one. Let’s just say it’s what we ended up calling protection-wise. Probably not the best thing, but man he’s sticking his face right in there. He’s a tough kid and I’ve really been encouraged by him,” said Ryan.
“I’m coming out working hard every day, taking it one day at a time, still trying to learn the offense inside and out,” Powell said after Tuesday’s practice at SUNY Cortland. “I go out and compete every day, and just do what I’m told.”
He adding that he learned a lot from last season from LaDainian Tomlinson, who closed out an outstanding career at running back and, along with Greene, was ahead of Powell on the depth chart.
“It was real good,” he said. “LaDainian taught me a lot, just basic football, telling me that the game is still football and the more you know, the slower the game becomes. And that allows you go out and play with more confidence.”
It was Powell’s performance during his senior season that got him noticed by the Jets, with Running Backs Coach Anthony Lynn an advocate of drafting him. The Jets did just that in the fourth round (126th overall pick) of the 2011 draft.
“Even though he was a one-year wonder in college, I just saw an outstanding combination back,” Lynn said. “I saw a guy who could run between the tackles if you needed him to. I saw a guy who could run in space if you needed him too. And that type of versatility you can do a lot with.”
In talking about Powell’s performance so far this summer, Lynn noted: “His pass protection, his understanding of what we’re trying to get done and coming in and helping us out on third downs has been really good, and I would say his route-running has probably stood out the most. It’s something that he worked on during the off-season, and he’s gotten a lot better at it.
“He was that guy his rookie year who would stay after practice and get extra work in with the quarterbacks. You can tell it’s paying off now. He was on the runway last year; we didn’t have to use him because we had LaDainian. This year he’s getting more opportunities, and he’s making the most of it.”
What are Powell’s strengths and weaknesses as a running back?
“He doesn’t have experience, but I think he’s a really good runner,” Lynn said. “He has great vision and good explosion. When he got on the second level (of the defense), all he did in college was go to the house. He was never caught from behind. I think he’s faster than most people think he is.”
Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano has also taken notice of Powell.
“I have been impressed with what Bilal has done in two areas, to be honest with you,” Offensive Coordinator Tony Sparano said. “He is a lot shiftier player. I did a lot of work on Bilal when he was coming out of college. I actually spent an awful lot of time with him. We had him up for a top-20 visit and we visited him at the Senior Bowl and a lot of different stops along the way because he had the one really good year there, that final year. I was impressed and have been impressed with his suddenness and his vision. I think he sees it pretty good from what I have seen so far.”
Sparano said he has also been impressed with Bilal’s blocking.
Ryan also made special mention early on in camp of Powell’s mental attributes, noting that “What’s unique about it is when we had to play him in a game he had no mental mistakes. He made absolutely zero mental mistakes. That tells you a lot about him. Mentally, he was on top of it. From a physical standpoint, he wasn’t. He had a lot of injuries, little thing here, little thing there that set him back. We really never got to see his capabilities. Now, he’s healthy. He’s in great shape. It seems like every day he does something where you’re like, ‘Oh, that was a nice run,’ or he does a good job in protection.”
“I think just learning the offensive system, especially with the lockout (and subsequent shorter training camp) last year,” Powell said when asked about the areas he feels he improved in the most since last year. “That gives me a better chance to come in and play with more confidence. And I think my pass protection has improved. But there’s still plenty more room to improve, to get better.”
Powell is not a total stranger to the area, having visited Syracuse while with Louisville for a Carrier Dome contest in 2008, a 28-21 SU victory in which he had four carries for eight yards and three receptions for 18 yards. He missed the Cardinals’ 28-21 win at the Dome in 2010 — the only game he was sidelined for that season, though he did make the trip — because of a minor knee injury.
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