Before practice, the Jets locker room is busy with players putting on their pads and getting taped up. There is endless chatter, and one of the players is blasting music from his iPod while others fine-tune their gear and down energy drinks.
Then there is tight end Hayden Smith, who is quietly brewing something special to get ready for practice — literally. Smith has an espresso machine plugged into an outlet in his locker and there is a small group seated around him as he pours the shots of coffee into special espresso cups. The Coffee Club was the idea of the former rugby player turned NFL tight end and it is growing in popularity as quick as the prospects of him making an impact this season.
He keeps the pods for the espresso maker in the tiny combination locker meant for valuables inside his locker, lest a teammate decide to prank him and do something to his coffee. But the Coffee Club itself is open to all on the team.
“Sometimes I invite some of the guys down; everyone is welcome. ... I enjoy a good coffee; maybe that’s the European in me. And it is kind of fun to sit around and enjoy an espresso and talk a little bit,” Smith told Metro. “It’s just a fun thing I can do.”
Mark Sanchez has made his way down for an espresso, as has fellow quarterback Greg McElroy. Defensive tackle Tevita Finau is a regular in the club and just this week both center Nick Mangold and cornerback Antonio Cromartie have stopped by for what Smith calls “a cup of culture.” Smith himself enjoys a double espresso every day — sometimes more often than that. The club is always accepting new members; defensive end Quinton Coples a couple locker spaces down from Smith got an invitation for next time.
“I’ll make my way over there,” Coples said with a laugh. “Right now, I’m taking it easy.”
Smith tells him that he likely will want to come by when minicamp starts up soon.
“It’s more of a socializing thing. We talk a little bit of football, but mainly things outside of this place,” Smith said. “It is a time to sit down, enjoy each other’s company. I think it brings a lot of value socially.”
Away from his prized espresso machine, Smith is settling in as a tight end. This time a year ago, everything was brand new for Smith. In fact, rookie minicamp was the first time in his life he had ever put on a football helmet. His transition from rugby to football was rough to say the least.
There are still growing pains for Smith, who is beginning to look more like an NFL player. He played in five games last year as a 27-year-old rookie, quite an accomplishment for someone who never played football at a competitive level let alone in college. As new as he is to the sport, there was Smith, hauling down two Mark Sanchez passes in athletic fashion during organized team activities last Thursday. On both occasions he leapt and snagged the overthrown balls in the face of defensive pressure.
Both catches drew cheers from his teammates.
Smith has tremendous balance and a fascinating blend of agility, size and speed. But Smith’s lack of understanding of the nuances of the game often frustrated last year's offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. His lack of patience with “Aussie” was evident on the practice field.
“It really changes everything. No longer am I learning the game of football; I can focus on the details,” Smith said. “It changes everything. The game seems slower now. I’m focused more on getting better and not just trying to figure out what I am supposed to be doing.
“This offseason, I worked pretty hard on my strength, my footwork, especially in the run game. Just been trying to get the work in. One of the points of emphasis from the [coaching] staff was being more explosive off the line. That’s something different than rugby and something I had to learn.”
The opportunity is there for Smith to find a role with the team as well. The Jets lost Dustin Keller through free agency this offseason and didn’t replace him in the draft or via free agency. Only Konrad Reuland and Jeff Cumberland return from last year's squad.
As Thursday showed, Smith can make plays and is arguably the best athlete among the current tight ends. Now, he just needs to continue the process of becoming a football player.
“Just trying to get better each day. That’s what this offseason was about — just trying to get better,” Smith said. “Hopefully, I can make an impact and help the team more this year.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.