This time a year ago, Jets nose tackle Kenrick Ellis was getting ready for the biggest challenge of his life. It wasn’t going against a veteran NFL offensive lineman or even a grueling training camp session.
Instead, Ellis was headed to Virginia to serve a 45-day prison sentence for a felony charge stemming from an incident which happened when he was in college. Ellis was able to squeeze in the prison term last year between minicamp and Jets training camp in late August. He served his time, something he says helped him grow mentally as a person and as a football player, and now he is back and fully focused on the task of becoming a contributor with the Jets.
But the prospect of being behind bars and the thought of spending time at the Virginia prison haunted Ellis last summer even before he went into the lock-up. It was something that affected him mentally and kept him from playing his best football last offseason.
“Just the fact that you have to go in a box for 40 days, that’s always in the back of my head last offseason. It’s always there, even if you’re on the field,” Ellis said. “I don’t wish it on anyone and I don’t want to be in it again. Just knowing the fact that I will be sitting in a box with killers and society’s outcasts, yeah, you’re always thinking about that. I’m glad it is over. I am glad to focus on other things.”
Now, Ellis is playing free and clear.
He admits to being uptight on the field a year ago, something that continued to stick with him even after he served his time. As the Jets finish organized team activities (OTAs) this week and head into minicamp next week, Ellis can reflect on how different his life is than this time a year ago. Now he can play reckless and free, a year removed from spending his time behind bars.
For starters, he can focus on the football field rather than “being in a box.”
“It was tough on him last year; it was in the back of his mind,” second-year nose tackle Damon Harrison said. “When I first came in, I didn’t really know him. He just seemed really quiet and really reserved. But as I got to know him, I could see it weighed on him. Seeing him between last year and this year, you see him having fun now and playing loose.”
Following minicamp last year, Harrison remembers talking with Ellis following the final practice. Ellis turned to him and opened up about having to go to prison in a few days. It was a frank and open conversation about his emotions.
“He was realizing that after this was over, he’d have to go to jail,” Harrison said. “Now for him, it is all football.”
This is a big year for Ellis, who is entering his third year in the league. Ellis has not had the impact expected of a player taken in the third round, playing in 17 games the past two seasons and making just 25 tackles. His meal ticket as an interior lineman in the Jets’ 3-4 defense will be as a run stopper.
In OTAs, he has shown good mobility and lateral movement, the result of an offseason where he focused on refining his footwork. It looks as if Ellis is primed to take a step forward in his development.
“I can just relax and play, [and] mentally focus on my assignment. I can focus on what I need to do; what I need to do physically,” Ellis said. “Being in the best place I can be on and off the field.”
Jets notes …
»The Jets were without wide receivers Stephen Hill (knee), Jeremy Kerley (heel) and Clyde Gates (hamstring) on Wednesday. Holding Kerley out was a precaution from head coach Rex Ryan and he anticipates having Hill and Gates back for minicamp next week.
» Also missing among the wide receivers was Santonio Holmes, who continues to rehab from last year’s season-ending foot injury in Week 3. Ryan said Holmes could start training camp on the physically unable to perform list.
»A decision on the Jets’ starting quarterback isn’t forthcoming anytime soon, per Ryan. Neither Mark Sanchez nor Geno Smith has distanced themselves enough to claim the starting spot.
“I don’t believe that’s the case. I don’t believe we’re close to that right now,” Ryan said. “The process, you don’t have to make that move. Until we feel 100 percent comfortable with that decision we’ll leave it to competition.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.