- Associated Press - Friday, April 29, 2011

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) - Rex Ryan and his aggressive New York Jets defense just got a big boost.

The Jets selected Temple defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson with the 30th overall pick in the NFL draft Thursday night, giving New York the big-time pass rusher they coveted.

“That’s a tremendous defense that they’ve got over there,” Wilkerson said shortly after being drafted. “I’m glad to be a part of it and I think I’ll come in and help the defense be more destructive than it is.”

The 6-foot-4 1/2, 305-pound Wilkerson had 9 1/2 sacks last year for the Owls, and should immediately help the Jets, who have made it to the AFC championship game the last two seasons.

“I don’t see him as a nose tackle, but this young man can play defensive end in our system and (defensive) tackle as well,” Ryan said. “I see him as a possible three-down contributor for us. We’ll see. His work ethic, he’s going to have to come in here and earn his reps and everything else, but we think he’s going to be an outstanding player for us.”

Despite Jets fans at the draft site at Radio City Music Hall chanting “We Want Bowers!” _ for Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers _ New York went with a local kid from Linden, N.J., who can also be a huge help against the run.

“I think Muhammad really fits what we want to do defensively, a guy who can really play head-up on a tackle and kick back in passing situations over guards and centers,” Ryan said. “Really, he really was an outstanding fit for what we do defensively.”

Wilkerson is the fourth Temple player drafted by the Jets, joining linebacker Mike Stromberg (1967), defensive tackle Joe Klecko (1977) and offensive lineman Dave Yovanovits (2003). He watched the draft with about 80-90 friends and family members at a restaurant in Linden, and got excited when the Jets went on the clock.

“I thought it was going to happen,” he said. “I had a great visit when I went to visit the Jets and had the workout for them. Once that 30th pick came around, I just had that feeling that they were going to pick me up.”

While Ryan’s defense has ranked among the top teams in overall defense the last two years, it was far from dominant last season. A major culprit was not putting enough consistent pressure on quarterbacks _ something they hope Wilkerson will provide.

“He was an excellent player in college, but we think he’s got more to give,” Ryan said. “I’m just excited to see this guy. We’re going to push him and push him and push him, and coach him up to play the way we play.”

Wilkerson was the Owls’ most valuable defensive player last season and decided to skip his senior season to enter the draft. A team captain, Wilkerson was named to the Outland Trophy watch list, and finished his career with 17 1/2 sacks.

He was also a disruptive force in the backfield during his career, stuffing running backs behind the line routinely. Ryan compared him to Trevor Pryce, who played for the Jets last season, as a guy with good size and a terrific wingspan who can get to the quarterback and be plugged in anywhere on the defensive line.

“It’s just pretty much just playing physical, playing strong and pretty much being very destructive,” Wilkerson said.

Even draft guru Mel Kiper liked the selection, praising it on ESPN’s broadcast.

“You can make an argument this is the best pick of the first round,” he said.

General manager Mike Tannenbaum, who has earned a reputation for being a wheeler-and-dealer on draft day, said there were a few “cursory” phone calls made about trading the pick.

“We listened when we were on the clock, too,” he said, “but really, when Muhammad was on the clock, we were really excited about that opportunity.”

Wilkerson rooted for the Giants as a youngster, watching the likes of Michael Strahan and Jessie Armstead lead a dominant defense. Now, he hopes to help the other team in town become even better.

“I didn’t grow up a Jets fan, but right now, I’m a Jet,” he said. “I’m proud and I’m happy.”

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