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Struggling Hunter no shoo-in as starter

08/20/2012 9:26 PM ET
By The Associated Press

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) -- The Jets' offense is struggling mightily, and a lot of the blame is being dumped on Wayne Hunter's massive shoulders.

The starting right tackle knows he needs to get better -- and fast.

''It's all correctable,'' Hunter said after practice Monday. ''It's all stuff that I've got to work on myself.''

Coach Rex Ryan would not commit to Hunter being the starting right tackle for the regular-season opener against Buffalo after the offensive lineman had a lousy performance in the Jets' 26-3 loss to the Giants on Saturday night.

Hunter was manhandled on three sacks of Mark Sanchez, and a fourth was negated by a penalty. He struggled most of last season as the starter, but the Jets (No. 17 in the AP Pro32) still guaranteed his $2.45 million base salary for this year.

''My confidence is fine,'' he said. ''I've just got to get better at my craft and I'll be fine. I'm the starting right tackle until they say otherwise.''

If it were up to many Jets fans, that time would be now as they have taken to Twitter, message boards and sports radio to beg the team to find another solution at right tackle. There were even some tasteless tweets during the game with fans wishing Hunter would ''die.''

Just two games into the preseason -- Hunter didn't play the first because of a stiff lower back -- it appears the veteran lineman is being put on notice: Get better, or else.

''We're committing to putting a good football team on the field,'' Ryan said. ''There's competition, not just at the right tackle spot, but there's competition throughout. We're loaded in some spots, and the competitions elevate people's play. I think that's a great thing. To sit back and say this guy is definitely the starter, I'm not ready to do that. Maybe with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Moore and Nick Mangold, but is it a slam dunk, 100 percent? I like to see guys compete and earn their jobs out there.''

Austin Howard, who spent most of last season on the Jets' roster but didn't play, has been getting some snaps with the first-team offense. Ryan left open the possibility that Howard could see some time with the starters in the Jets' next game against Carolina on Sunday night.

''We'll see,'' Ryan said. ''I think he's had his moments in camp where we are really impressed with him, but then there's other things where he's got to pick his game up, as well, but we'll see how it goes right here this week.''

The Jets curiously cut a potential replacement at right tackle on Monday, parting ways with veteran Stephon Heyer. New York traded for former Carolina first-round draft pick Jeff Otah before training camp, but he failed his physical and was returned to the Panthers.

There's still a chance that the Jets might try to sign or acquire a veteran who could start at right tackle before the regular season, which is why Ryan wouldn't say for sure whether Hunter or Howard would be the starter in Week 1.

''I'm not going to paint myself into a corner,'' Ryan said, ''because things happen.''

Sanchez has a vested interest in who will be trying to protect him up front, especially after being sacked five times in 10 series over the first two preseason games. He joked after the loss to the Giants that the pounding last season -- he was sacked 39 times -- is why he put on extra muscle in the offseason.

But Sanchez said he and his teammates are trying to keep Hunter positive, insisting he is good enough to be the starter.

''Going into your fourth year, you have your share of games, especially my rookie year, and there had to be times when guys on the team were just like, 'What are we doing with this guy? There's no way,''' Sanchez said. ''That stuff happens to everybody, I don't care who you are. All I can remember is the guys around me building me up, staying positive, having faith in me and being encouraging. That's exactly what I'm going to do to Wayne. That's what everybody's doing to Wayne.

''We know he can do it. He's a big, strong guy. He's smart, athletic, so he'll get it right. We know he can.''

Both Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano refused to put all the blame for the offense's struggles on Hunter. The Jets are the only team in the NFL yet to score a touchdown this preseason.

''We've got to get better, and it's not just Wayne Hunter,'' Ryan said. ''All of us across the board have got to pick our game up. Were there some glaring mistakes? Well, when you are isolated one-on-one sometimes against one of the premier pass rushers in the game, it becomes clear when you make a mistake.''

But Sparano added that those mistakes are correctable, including how the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Hunter put all of his weight on his outside foot while giving up the first of Jason Pierre-Paul's two sacks.

''Those things are things that Wayne was back out there today working hard at,'' Sparano said. ''I was pleased to see the way he came to work today and his demeanor out there on the practice field.''

As for the rest of the Jets' struggling offense, they are hoping to get some of their injured receivers back soon. And that might go a long way toward them finally getting into the end zone this preseason.

''We're called an offense,'' Sanchez said. ''We have to be on the offensive, we have to score points. That's the bottom line. It has to happen.''

Both Santonio Holmes (ribs/back) and Jeremy Kerley (hamstring) participated in positional drills, but did no team drills -- although there's an outside shot of them both being able to play against the Panthers.

''I believe wholeheartedly that our offense is going to be a very productive offense,'' Ryan said. ''Have we seen it totally in the preseason games? No, we haven't. There have been some mistakes, but I've seen enough good things that I believe as we start putting this thing together that you're going to see more and more positive things. I think when it's all said and done by the time we kick this season off, I think we'll be where we need to be.''

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