Kenrick Ellis gathered a few things from his locker, joked around with a New York Jets teammate and smiled.
The second-year defensive tackle was relaxed and happy throughout the team’s three-day minicamp, giving no indication that he would be headed to a much different place than everyone else planning their vacations after the final practice Thursday.
Ellis is expected to report Friday to a Virginia prison, where he will begin serving a jail sentence after pleading guilty last month to assault and battery stemming from a 2010 fight while attending college at Hampton University.
In a brief hearing last month in Hampton, Va., Ellis entered an Alford plea, meaning he didn’t admit guilt but acknowledged prosecutors could prove the case against him. He was sentenced to 179 days in jail, with 89 suspended, but his attorney, Timothy Clancy, said Ellis likely would serve 45 days. Ellis originally faced a felony malicious wounding charge from the fight and faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
”It’s a legal issue,” Ellis said this week, ”and it’s over with.”
Or, at least, it will be soon.
Ellis is thrilled with everything he has accomplished this offseason on the field, impressing his coaches with marked improvement and a resculpted body. All of that will be put on hold for now as he is expected to miss a few days of training camp next month while finishing his sentence.
”He’s a strong man,” Ryan said. ”And I know one thing: He’s looking forward to this season. He put so much into this offseason.”
”I definitely talked to him,” Ryan said. ”There are people that have gone through similar things, and I basically said, `Lean on each other.’ That’s pretty much it.”
Fellow Jets defensive lineman and former Hampton teammate Marcus Dixon has been one of those guys for Ellis. He served 15 months in prison after being convicted in 2003 by a Georgia court of statutory rape and aggravated child molestation. It was a highly publicized case that had many saying Dixon was the victim of a severe injustice.
”He’s a grown man and he’s going to persevere,” Dixon said. ”This is a little stepping stone. Whatever happens, he’ll do it and come back even better.”
After a lost rookie season, Ellis is determined to do just that. Ellis, who preferred to not talk about his legal situation, has been one of the small handful of players Ryan has repeatedly praised this offseason.
”It’s nice to hear, definitely,” Ellis said before quickly crediting new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar and veteran linemen such as Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito. ”They’re the ones who really helped me mature within the scheme of the system. I just want to do everything I can to help the team win.”
As a third-round pick in the draft last year, Ellis was expected to play a large role in the defense as a rookie. Instead, he played in just five games and made seven tackles.
”As a rookie coming in, you don’t know that you don’t know,” Ellis said. ”When you find out that you didn’t know, you’ve got to come in and do what you can from there forth. I was just as raw as they come. I was just green. It was a big transition.”
Ryan often talked about how good he thought Ellis could become, and the talent that made him so dominant in college. But Ellis wasn’t able to get on the field during games, partially victim of a numbers game and also because he hadn’t forced the issue with his play during practice.
”I just tried to do my job the best I could,” he said. ”I wished I could’ve been on the field to help out last year, but I wasn’t ready. Like I said, I didn’t know that I didn’t know.”
Ellis was also not in great shape, ballooning to nearly 350 pounds. He is below 340 now, thanks to an offseason of intense training with linebacker Bart Scott, who took Ellis under his wing and has also impressed Ryan with his physical condition.
”He showed me what work really meant,” Ellis said. ”My definition of work wasn’t what work really was. I’d just like to thank him in a big way. One of his favorite quotes was always: `While they’re sleeping, we’re working.’ We worked Saturdays, Sundays, it didn’t matter. We were going to get up and go work.”
Ellis would routinely get texts or calls from Scott, who would give details about when and where he planned to work out the next morning.
”And I’d say, `OK, good,’ and I’d just show up,” Ellis said. ”I mean, he’s been in the game for 10 years, so what better role model than him?”
The results have been striking, especially in the weight room, where Ellis once struggled to do a single pull-up. Now, the big defensive lineman is doing several sets of pull-ups – even with 35-pound weights attached to him.
Ellis is also making his presence felt on the field, taking advantage of the offseason workouts and practices he missed out on as a rookie because of the lockout.
”I might be biased, but I’m so proud of him,” Dixon said. ”That’s a Hampton guy, you know what I’m saying? Now that we had OTAs and a full offseason, man, I’m excited to see what he’s going to do.”
While the prison time might affect his conditioning, Ellis maintains that he’ll just work that much harder when he returns to the team.
”I’m still a rookie, man, a young guy and I’m still learning,” Ellis said. ”I know what I need to do now. Every chance I get and every opportunity I get, I try to soak up as much knowledge as possible. It’s not about being just the strongest guy on the field. You want to be one of the smartest, know your job, where you’re supposed to be at. It’s a beautiful thing.”
NOTES: WRs Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill did individual drills, but did not participate in team drills while recovering from tight hamstrings that limited them throughout minicamp. … DL Muhammad Wilkerson playfully wagged his finger – Dikembe Mutombo-style – after batting down Mark Sanchez’s first pass during 11-on-11 drills. … Defensive backs coach Dennis Thurman said rookie Josh Bush, a sixth-round pick, is the team’s No. 4 safety, and Ellis Lankster is the No. 4 cornerback, after impressive offseasons.