HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – Vernon Gholston has obvious intelligence. He also has manners to go with an understated way of talking that appeals to anyone with common sensibility.
But in the uncommon world of the NFL, where hyper-macho intensity mixes with manic emotional swings, listening to Gholston talk makes you wonder: Where is the fire?
On the surface, the talented Gholston certainly doesn't appear to burn hot. For a team that has put as much on the line as the New York Jets this offseason, drafting a player like Gholston with the sixth overall pick during the NFL draft at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday could be the key to narrowing the chasm that currently exists between the archrival New England Patriots and the cross-town rival (not to mention reigning champion) New York Giants.
Or his selection could ultimately be the move that helps seal the fate of a front office that is clearly under pressure to make a drastic improvement. Taking the physically gifted Gholston (he had 37 reps on the 225-pound bench press to go with a 4.56 40-yard dash time) may be one of the riskiest moves of the first round if you believe the words of folks around the league; even riskier than the Atlanta Falcons' move to take Matt Ryan at No. 3 overall.
"I worry about Ryan, but that's a pure talent thing. He's prepared mentally, he's mature beyond his years and he really likes the game. With Gholston, I sometimes wonder if he really loves the game," said a front-office executive who studied both intently.
Even after he established an Ohio State season-record 14 sacks last season, one NFL defensive coordinator who has great expertise in line play was down on Gholston a month ago.
"When you watch film on him, he doesn't always chase the play down if he's on the backside. If the ball goes to the other side, he just stops," the defensive coordinator said. "That's a bad trait. Guys don't pick that up."
That might be a reflection of Gholston picking up the game at a relatively late stage of his life.
Growing up in Detroit, Gholston and his family put a premium on education. He attended Cass Technical High School, a science magnet school that feeds kids to the University of Michigan. Gholston didn't play football until he was asked by the school's defensive coach, Charleston Fobbs, during his sophomore year.
At one point, Fobbs kicked Gholston off the team when he didn't show enough toughness. Still, Gholston said he grew to "love the game."
So what sport did you love to play before that?
"I didn't really play anything. I was into academics," Gholston said.
OK, that happens. There are a handful of NFL players who find their way to the game late in life. There just doesn't happen to be a lot of them who do that and then find their way to the top of the NFL draft.
In short, you have to wonder the age-old question of whether Gholston is too smart for the game; whether he's the type of person who will throw his life into being great. He talks a nice game, of course.
"Just the fact that everyone is working together for a common goal," Gholston said. "There's no greater feeling for me than when I accomplish my goals."
From a pure X's and O's standpoint, Gholston is the type of athlete who can play anywhere: from defensive end to outside linebacker to even on the inside occasionally.
"One of the things I liked about him was his flexibility," Jets coach Eric Mangini said. "Being able to see him … lined up over the tight end, dropping into coverage, doing a lot of other things that they do at Ohio State. Ohio State is an excellent defense and requires their players to do a lot of things, so I liked that about Vernon."
After watching how the Giants applied steady pressure throughout the postseason en route to winning a Super Bowl, building that type of pass rush was an obvious priority for the Jets. They can now move around Gholston, Bryan Thomas and Calvin Pace, who they signed to a reported six-year, $42 million this offseason.
"I think we've got a nice group of guys," Mangini said with a cheery smile.
If you extend that "group" beyond the defensive line, the Jets are adding Gholston to a collection of five other potential new starters: Pace, guard Alan Faneca, fullback Tony Richardson, guard Damien Woody and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. The spending spree will cost the team reportedly $142 million in contracts, not including whatever Gholston gets.
And if all of that doesn't eventually add up to a serious run at a title, the pressure will grow on Mangini. Not only are the Jets competing with the Patriots and the Giants, they are competing with themselves now.
Of course, the Jets added a somewhat symbolical touch at the end of the day when they traded up from the early part of the second round to late in the first (No. 30 overall) to take tight end Dustin Keller.
To get Keller, the Jets had to jump right in front of the Giants, who picked 31st. That move wasn't truly meaningful in the grand scheme of what this is all about. It's far more important that the Jets are ahead nine months from now.
But it was another example of how the Jets aren't shying away from competing.
Even at the expense of an intelligent risk.
- Vernon Gholston