Eli McGuire is the big man on campus again, the hot waiver wire pickup in the fantasy football world and a guy Jets fans are hoping will be a part of the youth movement at the center of their teams surprising 3-2 start.
The rookie sixth-round running back has created a buzz in the run-up to a showdown with The Evil Empire, a no-name from Louisiana-Lafayette thrust into the spotlight due to injuries, a much-needed boost.
That backup is always the most popular guy, running backs coach Stump Mitchell said. Because usually when he gets in the game, he makes something happen. But we expect something to happen Hell, I know. When I played, I was that backup guy. Everybody in St. Louis was like, Oh Stumps up. Well, yeah. This play is designed specifically for me. We know whats going to happen. Or we know what SHOULD happen nine times out of 10.
New offensive play-caller John Morton gradually ramped up McGuires workload through the first five week due to feel and, most recently, necessity. McGuires offensive playtime percentages: 0%, 20%, 19%, 27%, 68%.
Matt Fortes turf toe suffered a few weeks ago opened the door for McGuire. Bilal Powells calf strain that kept him out of the second half last week is expected to sideline him against the Patriots on Sunday. Fortes status against Bill Belichick & Co. is iffy. Translation: Expect a heavy dose of McGuire, whose 10-carry, 93-yard performance against the Jaguars a couple weeks ago gave everyone a glimpse of what might be possible.
I just want to be consistent at what I do, McGuire said. Thats just the main job on this level to keep your job: Be consistent and show the coaches that I know what Im doing.
Morton and Mitchell have already taken notice of McGuires preparation and demeanor. Its like hes a veteran already, Morton said recently.
Mitchell admittedly didnt know much about his pupil before the Jets drafted him. Hes worked on technical elements of McGuires game that have yielded tangible benefits. One of the most important themes: Dont bounce everything to the outside on zone plays.
In college, he always tried to get to the sideline, Mitchell said. If he could, he was getting to the perimeter. Thats not the case anymore. Now hes reading blocks (better). With Eli, theres not a whole lot that he cant do. And theres nothing that hes not willing to do.
McGuire might be self-confident, but he has no ego. Hes an equal-opportunity sponge, willing to absorb lessons from Morton, Mitchell, Forte, Powell or just about anyone else. His pass protection is still a work in progress.
Hes taken Mitchells tips about pressing the line and waiting for the back side to be sealed before putting his foot in the ground and running upfield to heart. The coach has often used Chris Johnson, one of the best inside- and outside-zone runners hes been around, as an example.
In college, I relied on speed to get me to the edge a lot of times, McGuire said. But on this level, man, everybodys fast. So, you have to make that adjustment. I just cant get to the outside all the time. I have to be pressing the hole more, getting everybody to flow in one direction and then going in a different direction.
What makes you special is making guys miss, said the 5-10, 210-pound McGuire, who was bottled up in the second half in Cleveland last week. Thats what I try to do, because running guys over that stuff hurts. Im not big on trying to run people over. So, I just try to give them a little move and just make something happen.
McGuires decisive cut sprung him for a 69-yard touchdown run two weeks ago in an overtime win over the Jaguars. His head and eyes were in the exact right places. It was a thing of beauty.
He pressed the center, keeping his focus going to the left, Mitchell said. He let everything go that way and then he made the cut, went back and kept it straight. Its the fundamentals. What he would have done earlier, he probably would have tried to cut back (too soon) and gotten three yards. The defender would have been standing right there waiting on him. But now his vision is where its supposed to be.
Morton has done a solid job rotating his running backs, but McGuire, who has 43 carries for 176 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and five receptions this season, will be in line for more work on Sunday. The Patriots have the 29th-ranked rush defense (124.2 ypg). Only the Steelers and Jaguars have allowed more yards per carry than New Englands 5.0.
For the most part, Morton has put McGuire in favorable positions, which isnt a given in this league.
Right now, you take a look at the Rams, Mitchell said. I see Todd Gurley. Everybody said he was a bum and all of that crap last year. But look at the system that hes in. I saw him run a daggone seam route (recently). So, players sometimes, I think, get critiqued in a negative fashion, but (the scheme) may not display the skills that they have based on the offense that theyre in. They can only do what we ask them to do.
The Jets havent asked McGuire to do anything they dont believe he can handle. Hes learning every day.
I have to build my way up again, McGuire said. You got to listen to the older guys. You got to let those guys get their shine. You got to let those guys do their thing. You got to let those guys eat. And you got to be patient. Your time will come sooner or later.
The time has arrived.