Once a big fish in a small pond, Kerley reveling in NY's bright lights
It's a long way to the NFL from Hutto, Texas, a bedroom suburb of Austin located about 22 miles northeast of the state capital, where the high school may owe its unique nickname, Hippos, to an incident in 1915, when a circus train stopped in town to take on passengers and a hippopotamus escaped from a railcar and ventured to nearby Cottonwood Creek, causing much commotion.
Thirsty hippo aside, only one man has made the journey from Hutto to the league: Jeremy Kerley, the New York Jets wide receiver and punt returner.
In his second season in the NFL, Kerley is evolving into a primetime player for a Jets team that has a paucity of playmakers. He leads the team in catches (25) and yards (435) to go with two touchdowns. He also averages 14.1 yards on 10 punt returns, including a 68-yard touchdown against Buffalo in the season opener that earned him the honor of AFC special teams player of the week.
After No. 1 wideout Santonio Holmes suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 4 against San Francisco and was lost for the season, you could imagine coach Rex Ryan calling Kerley into his office for a we-need-you-to-lift-your-game pep talk. But that didn't happen.
"Actually, it was just the opposite," Kerley said. "The coaches told me to do what I'd been doing (and) don't try to play outside of myself. They just told me to go out there and do the same things I'd been doing all year."
Kerley has started the last two games and has caught 15 passes for 238 yards in the three games since Holmes' injury, but his primary role in the offense hasn't changed appreciably. He still mostly lines up in the slot, where he can utilize his short-area quickness, like he did against Miami in Week 3.
He ran a 12-yard option route and separated from the defender for a 66-yard catch-and-run that moved the ball from the Jets' 29- to the Dolphins' 5-yard line, setting up a field goal.
"The talent (in the NFL) is so even, you've got to find something that separates you even a little bit, and you have to put major emphasis on that," the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Kerley said. "I'm not really a down-the-field, stretch-you-out type of guy, so I make sure my short-yardage game is what I try to perfect. It's something I work on very hard."
A fifth-round draft pick last year out of TCU, where he was the Mountain West Conference's special teams player of the year twice and a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award (most versatile college player) in 2010, Kerley had a modest rookie season. He caught 29 passes for 314 yards and one touchdown, rushed five times for 28 yards, completed a 41-yard pass out of the Wildcat formation and averaged 10.9 yards on 29 punt returns.
Ryan was expecting Kerley to make a big leap this season, but the coach was initially miffed when Kerley suffered a hamstring injury in a drill on the first day of training camp and missed several practices and the first preseason game. Always one to speak his mind, Ryan told reporters that he was "disappointed" in Kerley, who had to "step it up" to learn new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano's offense.
Ryan said the same thing in a face-to-face meeting with Kerley.
"I was OK with it," Kerley said of Ryan's assessment. "The reason being I definitely at the time felt I let my teammates down. I wanted to go out there and battle harder for my teammates and my head coach, who was looking at me as a playmaker who was disappointing because I'm not on the field."
No one is disgruntled with Kerley now, and he and quarterback Mark Sanchez appear to be building a solid rapport. In last Sunday's 26-23 overtime loss to New England, Sanchez targeted Kerley 11 times, and Kerley caught seven passes for 120 yards -- both career highs.
Sanchez sang Kerley's praises in his postgame press conference.
"I think Kerley is one of the best guys we got and he really is a special talent," Sanchez said. "Each year, he keeps getting better and better, and he's one of those guys who wants to work. He wants to keep studying film, and he finds a way to get open."
Although it seems like Sanchez gets more criticism than praise -- and many Jets fans would like nothing better than to see Tim Tebow run the offense -- Kerley has his quarterback's back.
"I don't care what anybody says about Mark Sanchez, he's a great quarterback," Kerley said. "He's a great leader, and he attacks the game well. Hopefully, I'll get to play in a system with him for a long time."
The development of Kerley has been one of the bright spots for the 3-4 Jets, who not only lost Holmes for the season but also premier cornerback Darrelle Revis. Still, they are only a game out of first place in the AFC East and nearly beat the Patriots on the road in regulation in Week 7.
Asked last year what were the areas of his game he needed to improve, Kerley ran the gamut: route running, catching the ball and separation. Now, his primary goal is to be consistent from start to finish.
"Just finishing the game out, playing hard every snap," he said. "Definitely still work on my down-the-field game, work on a better rapport with my teammates, with my receiver group. Just make the most out of this opportunity that I have."
Although he played football, basketball and ran track -- he twice was a silver medalist in the triple jump at the state high school track and field meet in Austin -- baseball was Kerley's first love while growing up in Hutto. In T-Ball, the coaches put him at first base because he was the only player who could catch the ball.
By the time he was a teen, Kerley was an outfielder and a pitcher who could throw a 94 mph fastball. He stopped playing baseball when he was a sophomore at Hutto High, but he still has aspirations of some day playing it again.
"It's something near and dear to my heart," he said. "I definitely want to get back out there one day after everything is all said and done with football. I want to pick back up on baseball and try to get on somebody's club that will give me a chance, take a risk on me."
Playing baseball may have helped Kerley turn into a punt returner. You need the same concentration to track a fly ball as you do a punt, although, as Kerley aptly put it, "It's a little different in baseball; you don't have guys flying down, trying to take your head off."
But Kerley is no stranger to danger. When he wasn't playing sports in Hutto, Kerley was getting himself into mischief. Once, while sitting in a classroom on a beautiful day, Kerley decided he had enough school and climbed out the window while the teacher's back was turned. He ended up on top of the school cafeteria, where he roamed around before eventually attracting the attention of students and teachers alike watching him from below. Kerley then jumped from the eight-foot-high building and landed on his feet, unhurt.
"It was just the randomness of Jeremy Kerley," he explained. "I did random things that just didn't have any reason to them. I was a Kerley kid growing up in a small town. Everybody knew who I was, knew my cousins. They expected you to be this way and that way. I said I'm going to do it a little different."
Another time, one of his younger cousins picked up his loaded BB rifle. Kerley knew that was a bad idea, so he reached to grab it from her. When he did, the girl accidentally pulled the trigger and a BB went through Kerley's right index finger.
If you can survive a jump from a school building and a BB through your finger, you certainly can laugh about the first time you tried to field a punt in the NFL. In the 2011 season opener against Dallas, a night game, Kerley was standing under a kick when the ball bounced off his facemask and ricocheted out of bounds.
As for his roots, Kerley is proud to be a native of Hutto, one of the nation's fastest-growing small cities (since 2001, the population has increased 936 percent, and as of last year nearly 15,000 folks called Hutto home). The Kerley name became famous there long ago. Doc Kerley, Jeremy's great-great grandfather, founded Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1901. One of the streets in town is Jim Cage Lane, named after Kerley's maternal grandfather, who was Hutto's first African-American councilman. Another street is named Kerley.
Jeremy takes all of that heritage to heart when he's out on the football field.
"I'm the first one from my city to ever make it to the NFL, the first one to ever play in these bright lights, the city of New York," he said. "I play not just for myself but for the whole city. I'm playing for anyone in my city who's never made it anywhere, who's never had a chance to do something. I'm playing for something much bigger than me. I'm playing for the city of Hutto."
Hippos past and present know they have an advocate in Kerley.