Commentary

Rutgers alumni bonding during lockout

With the uncertainty lingering, a group of NFL Scarlet Knights have stayed together

Updated: July 20, 2011, 11:38 AM ET
By Jane McManus | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- The sun was pouring over the rubber grains of artificial turf at Rutgers, as unforgiving as a hard day at training camp. Even though NFL players still aren't officially working, you could use a collegiate analogy for what a handful of former Scarlet Knights were doing out there: prepping for the test.

Jamaal Westerman, Brian Leonard, Kevin Malast, Jeremy Zuttah and Antonio Lowery were under the hot sun with their former team getting ready for an NFL season that might start as soon as this weekend.

Over the past few weeks, they have served as workout partners and an informal support group as the uncertainty of the lockout created problems for some more than others and as each tried to keep goals in the forefront despite the distractions of leisure time.

"We all hold each other accountable," said Leonard, a running back for the Cincinnati Bengals. "We all push each other; we're not just good teammates but we're good friends as well. We can be honest with each other."

They all are in different situations when it comes to a potentially chaotic NFL free agency. Westerman is safely signed to the New York Jets, and Malast got signed by the Tennessee Titans to a futures contract just before the lockout. Leonard was tendered by the Bengals at a second-round pick but likely will be an attractive unrestricted free agent once the new collective bargaining agreement is completed. Zuttah is headed to training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Lowery is an undrafted free agent hoping he doesn't get overlooked in the frenzy.

Westerman, a linebacker who was undrafted two years ago, can relate to guys like Lowery.

"You're not attached to a team but you want to be ready when you get that call because there's not going to be a lot of time in between," Westerman said.

Lowery said he thinks he has as good a shot as any rookie if he can get to training camp. Since no one has been able to work out with teams, the playing field is even -- if he can get there.

"Right now it's a waiting process," Lowery said.

Malast, a linebacker, has been waiting without a playbook to get started in Tennessee. But knowing Titans CB Jason McCourty and his twin brother, Devin, a Patriots cornerback, who both also use the Rutgers facilities, has opened a door for him. Jason McCourty was Malast's host during an informal team workout this summer.

"The players called a minicamp about four weeks ago, and I stayed with Jay, he introduced me to the guys and I learned a lot just going down there," Malast said.

But there is uncertainty even for those currently signed to teams.

Zuttah, an offensive lineman, is not sure which position he's going to be playing when he gets to training camp. Pat Morris is the Buccaneers' new offensive line coach, and, Zuttah said, "We haven't had a chance to meet with him and see what he expects."

Leonard is going into his fifth NFL season. Under the old rules, the Bengals would have had the option to keep him, and under that assumption they offered him a second-round tender before the lockout. He didn't sign but should be a priority for Cincinnati when the lockout is lifted.

"I'm kind of getting anxious," Leonard said. "Especially not knowing where you're going to be. In two weeks, I could be on the West Coast, you know? But I like Cincinnati, though. Hopefully I can get a good deal there."

Although Westerman is in a stable position and knows who his coaches and many of his teammates will be with the Jets, working out together isn't like working out with their teams.

"It's definitely different," Westerman said. "Usually we work on the things the coaches think you need to get better on, if it's learning the playbook or understanding the schemes. You see where you're at, not only physically but mentally. I think that's one of the things we miss, working off the guys you're going to be playing with during the season."

All speculated that the lack of organized team activities and minicamps would make training camp look very different. Coaches will have to look closely at the returning players to make sure they are in football shape, rather than spending as much time on the hopefuls at the bottom of the roster.

Westerman and Leonard are guessing there will not be as much physical contact early on in camp, because the risk of injury is higher. That could put some players at a disadvantage.

"I'm lucky I'm a vet because I'm one of those guys who doesn't look that great out of pads, I don't think personally," Leonard said. "But I put pads on, I can run through people, I can come out of the backfield, make people miss."

Leonard said working out at Rutgers is good for the players but also good for the program, so that current Scarlet Knights can see the possibilities of playing professionally. Westerman agreed.

"It's good to come back and pay respect to where we came from," Westerman said.

Jane McManus is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow her on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com

Jane McManus has covered New York sports since 1998 and began covering football just before Brett Favre's stint with the Jets. Her work has appeared in Newsday, USA Today, The Journal News and The New York Times. Follow Jane on Twitter.

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