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'Dark days' with Cards now in past for new Jets linebacker

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- The boos began for Calvin Pace the day his name was announced as the 18th pick of the NFL draft five years ago.

"I had some dark days, man," the Jets linebacker recalled Tuesday, shaking his head. "I had some days where I didn't even really want to go to work."

Labeled a bust after failing to live up to high expectations despite a career year last season for the Arizona Cardinals, Pace is hoping for big things in New York's 3-4 defense after signing as a free agent.

"What I do well is what they're going to do," he said. "I felt it was a perfect match."

The 6-foot-4, 270-pound outside linebacker is expected to inject some much-needed energy into the Jets' pass rush, along with top pick Vernon Gholston, after a career-high 6 1/2 sacks and 106 tackles last season.

"This defense is a little more -- I'm not going to say complicated -- but there's a little more to it than I'm used to," he said. "There's a lot of different things being thrown at you. I mean, our offense does a lot of different things and they're not vanilla like some teams are. Everyday, man, it's just learning."

And, boy, did he learn a lot from his days with the Cardinals.

Arizona had the No. 6 pick in 2003 and many fans wanted the team to draft Terrell Suggs, a star Arizona State defensive end. The Cardinals instead traded the pick to New Orleans for the 17th and 18th selections. They took wide receiver Bryant Johnson and then Pace, a less-heralded defensive end from Wake Forest.

Fans jeered the selection and some even started "I Hate Calvin Pace" threads on message boards -- before he even played a down for the Cardinals.

"Unfortunately, from Day 1, that was the label people were putting behind my name: a bust," he said. "I was in a situation where they wanted the Cardinals to draft the hometown guy and they didn't. I was looking at myself like, 'I didn't draft me. I didn't tell the Cardinals to draft me. I just ended up there."'

Pace started every game as a rookie, but tallied only 32 tackles and a sack, hardly resembling the disruptive force the Cardinals scouted in his Demon Deacons days.

He played in 14 games the following year with no starts and had nine tackles and 4 1/2 sacks. His third season ended after five games when he cut his right forearm while falling through a window at his home during a bye weekend.

"My first couple of years, I lost my confidence and it was just a total disaster," Pace said. "I learned a lot from it from the standpoint of thinking you're here for a reason, so you've got to keep that in your mind."

He played some at strongside linebacker when he returned the following year, but broke through last season. First-year coach Ken Whisenhunt installed a 3-4 defense -- the same system New York runs -- and moved Pace to linebacker full time.

"I'm not going to say I lucked out or anything, but I guess it was just God's grace that I had someone come in who what they did well is what I did well," he said.

The Jets, in dire need of improving a pass rush that mustered just 29 sacks last season, outbid several teams and signed Pace to a six-year, $42 million deal that included a $20 million signing bonus.

"It was the direction they were trying to go," Pace said of choosing to sign with the Jets. "It wasn't like they needed 15 pieces to the puzzle. It wasn't like a total rebuilding. I've been a part of that and that's not where you want to be, in my opinion."

As part of the Jets' recruiting process, owner Woody Johnson lent his personal helicopter to the cause, allowing Pace to get a bird's-eye view of New York City and the Jets' future headquarters in Florham Park, N.J.

"I'm not a big fan of heights, but that view, very few people get a chance to see everything like that," Pace said. "It's easy to drive through New York, but when you're flying over the top of it, man, it was crazy."

Speaking of the view, coach Eric Mangini has liked what Pace has shown so far.

"We've seen the athleticism we had seen in Arizona," Mangini said. "He's got an excellent burst. When he sees the target, that burst, the ability to just accelerate, is very good."

Pace hopes another solid year of terrorizing quarterbacks can finally bury that dreaded bust label in the Arizona desert.

"I don't believe in that word," Pace said. "Sometimes it just doesn't work out for people. You can't label somebody a bust. It's like any other job. Sometimes that job just isn't for you. You might need a fresh start and go somewhere where they're giving you a legitimate opportunity."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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