FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Sione Pouha remembers being impressed after watching some highlights after the New York Jets drafted Muhammad Wilkerson in the first round.
Big. Strong. Athletic. Seemed to be a pretty good fit for the Jets' defensive line. Then, Pouha got to meet Wilkerson and, well, the film didn't lie.
"He has tons of ability, man," Pouha said Wednesday. "And, he's a big kid."
Wilkerson is 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, an intimidating presence even among his fellow defensive linemen.
"Mo is just a freak," defensive end Mike DeVito said with a laugh. "He's got everything it takes."
Not only that. Wilkerson has already been named a starter, just a few months after being drafted 30th overall out of Temple. Coach Rex Ryan made the announcement after just two full practices.
"He belongs," Ryan said. "He's the starting defensive end right now, the day he walked in here. That's why we drafted him, not to be a backup. We need him to be a player."
That's because Kris Jenkins has retired and Shaun Ellis might not be back. That means Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis, the team's third-round pick, will likely play major roles immediately on Ryan's defensive line.
"You don't expect them to be as great as those guys were right away because that takes some time," said defensive line coach Mark Carrier, a former NFL safety. "But, they're here for a reason. Our scouts saw in the evaluations, 'Hey, these guys are what we're looking for.' We know we're going to get some production out of them early."
Ryan liked how Wilkerson was relentless when he got tangled up with Pro Bowl left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson in one early practice. Wilkerson wasn't discouraged by being stopped on the play, and doesn't feel any pressure after already being anointed a starter.
"Right now, I can't even think about starting," Wilkerson said. "I just have to worry about trying to do my best to try and help out the defense. Coming into the games, if I'm truly the starter, then so be it, but I'm definitely going to work hard to be the starter."
His humility and eagerness have already endeared him to his defensive linemates, several of whom got together on their own in New Jersey during the NFL lockout.
"I called him up and was like, 'Hey, man, come on over,' and he was like, 'Yeah, man. Pretty cool,'" Pouha recalled. "You see they come with their cups empty and they're ready to be filled, whether it's a coaching point or something else. You can just tell they're all ears and waiting to saturate themselves with information."
Wilkerson is being asked to step into the role once filled by Shaun Ellis, who played his first 11 seasons with the Jets and is a free agent. Ellis has received an offer to return for the veteran minimum — $910,000 — but agent Mitch Frankel told The Associated Press that the player who ranks third on the franchise's career sacks list is "contemplating his other options."
That means if Ellis doesn't return, Wilkerson has some big shoes to fill. And, even if he does come back, Ryan said Wilkerson would still be playing plenty.
"I'm not surprised at all," DeVito said. "Why else would you have drafted him that high if you didn't expect him to come in and play? I mean, he will deliver and he is delivering. We don't have to worry about that."
Kenrick Ellis, a 6-4, 345-pound nose tackle out of Hampton, is expected to back up Pouha but his combination of size and speed have his teammates excited.
"When he gets going straight ahead, I don't think there's anybody in this league who can stop him," DeVito said. "He kind of reminds me of Jenkins a little bit, the way he plays. Just a powerful, straight-ahead guy."
Ellis has been dealing with some legal issues stemming from an incident in college. He was originally scheduled to stand trial in Virginia last month for malicious wounding, but received a continuance and that court date was rescheduled for Nov. 28. The Jets knew about Ellis' situation when they drafted him and felt comfortable enough to draft him.
Complicating matters, though, is the fact that the native of Jamaica has permanent resident status in the United States, ESPNNewYork.com reported, and could face deportation if he is convicted.
"That's a legal issue," Ellis said. "It is what it is, man. I just want to play football. It's a legal issue and I can't really speak on that right now."
On the field, Ellis has already stood out, like Wilkerson, to his teammates and coaches.
"He's the biggest guy on the field who you notice running the fastest," Carrier said. "It's just unbelievable the effort he puts out when you watch film of him. He's flying from sideline to sideline."
Ellis has been watching both Pouha and DeVito during training camp to try to help himself improve.Comment on this story
"Everything they do, I try to imitate it, perfect it in my own way," he said.
Carrier has told both Wilkerson and Ellis not to think they need to do everything themselves. They'll be fine, he said, if they simply stick to the system — which has helped the defense rank among the league's best the past few seasons.
"You don't really give special treatment," Pouha said. "I mean, once you're on the train, you're on the train. It doesn't matter which car you're in, we're all headed in the same direction — and hopefully that's Indianapolis and the Super Bowl."