Rookie DL Micheal Clemons goes to 'dark place' when he plays, but he could be bright spot for Jets defense

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Michael Clemons Jets podium smile
Michael Clemons Jets podium smile

It’s been a long time since any Jets defense has had a real edge to it, or any player who could strike fear into those on the other side of the ball. They’ll have to wait to see if they have any now on the unit they rebuilt this offseason.

Micheal Clemons, though, sure does seem to fit the part.

He is, to say the least, a commanding and intimidating presence, as he was when he stood behind the podium and spoke to the media on Friday. But that’s apparently nothing compared to what he is when the pads go on and he steps on the field.

“When he puts a helmet on, he goes to a very dark place,” said Jets coach Robert Saleh, “and it reflects in his play and the effort and violence with which he does it.”

From that dark place, the Jets believe the 6-foot-5, 263-pound Clemons could emerge as one of the surprising bright spots of their Class of ’22. He was their last pick of the draft, taken in the fourth round, 117th overall, and the only one with character concerns thanks to an arrest on weapons and drug charges last September. It was a gamble to be sure. Beyond the character concerns, there were injury issues. He also doesn’t even have all that much experience playing defense.

The payoff, though, could be huge.

“With Big Mike, I feel like he’s one of the nastiest players in this entire draft,” Jets GM Joe Douglas said after the draft. “The physicality, the edge that he plays with, the toughness that he brings. I don’t think you can't have enough of that. We don’t think we can have enough of that on this team.”

They certainly haven’t had nearly enough of that on the Jets in recent years, especially on their ultra-young defense which was the worst in the NFL last season. It was soft, particularly up front, where the pass rush was at times non-existent. No offensive coordinator feared anyone the Jets’ defense had.

But look at what they have now. They not only rebuilt their secondary with the additions of safety Jordan Whitehead and corners D.J. Reed and Sauce Gardner, but they are suddenly loaded up front. The line, which has always been the heart of Saleh’s defense will feature Quinnen Williams and Sheldon Rankins in the middle, surrounded by a presumably healthy Carl Lawson and newcomer Jermaine Johnson, the 26th overall pick in the draft, on the edge. And that’s just for starters. They can also rotate in John Franklin-Myers, Solomon Thomas, Vinny Curry, Nathan Shepard, Jacob Martin and Bryce Huff, too.

And then there’s Clemons, who rebounded nicely from his one-game suspension at the start of last season after he was arrested for unlawful carrying of a weapon, possession of less than two ounces of marijuana and driving with an expired license. He had seven sacks for the Aggies, had 11 tackles for loss and an astounding 46 pressures in 10 games (according to Pro Football Focus).

He just seems different, too. He certainly talks like the “nasty” player the Jets hope he is. Asked about his pass-rushing repertoire, he touted his “power moves” first – and for good reason.

“You make a guy quickly respect you when you hit him in the mouth over and over again,” Clemons said. “He’s going to be thinking about that all day.”

Clemons has loved that kind of attacking power since his days as a high school running back, when dreamed of being “Brandon Jacobs 2.0” – the huge, hard-hitting Giants running back from their most recent Super Bowl era. Clemons didn’t switch to defense until he played linebacker as a senior, but he was hurt and didn’t play much. He had to walk on at Cisco (Tex.) College to continue his career and had to tell the coaches he should play defensive end. In one year, he ended up playing well enough to get the attention of nearby Texas A&M.

He showed enough there that he probably should’ve been drafted higher, but concerns about his character – not to mention foot and ankle injuries at college – sent him tumbling down draft boards. But the rest of the league’s loss could be the Jets’ gain. Douglas said the Jets’ medical staff was “comfortable” with their evaluation. As for his arrest, Douglas said “(I) feel good about him not making those similar mistakes moving forward.”

If he does, all they’ve lost is a fourth-round pick. If he doesn’t, what they’ve found could help change what their defense is all about.

“We feel the talent level, obviously high,” Douglas said. “What he brings from a length, toughness, has speed off the edge, certainly you can say he’s a first, second-day talent level. But then you get to a point in the draft and risk is mitigated somewhat.”

Saleh didn’t seem worried at all about the risk. As enamored as he was by Clemons’ presence and his ability to play in that “dark place,” he also said “At the same time, he’s a pleasure to be around.” Saleh pointed out that he was a captain for the Aggies, well-respected by his teammates.

He seemed at ease in front of the cameras in his first dealings with the New York media, too. He has a deep voice and speaks slowly with long, thoughtful pauses, which only add to the intimidation factor. But he’s also funny, engaging and charismatic, too.

Of course, what matters most is what he does on the field, and Saleh definitely has no concerns about that.

“He loves the game,” Saleh said. “A lot of guys we brought in absolutely love the game, so they play at a level of intensity and a level of effort that is more than most. … (We’re) filling this roster with guys who love this game and will put everything on the line to protect it.

“I think he kind of exemplifies that.”