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Hard-hitting Ventrone trying to make big impact on Jets as special teamer

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- There were times during Raymond Ventrone's college career at Villanova when he wasn't allowed to practice. He hurt too many teammates.

"I gave a couple of guys concussions," Ventrone said with a grin Monday. "My coach would put a red jersey on me, I guess just to protect some of the other players. They didn't have that many scholarships, so we had to keep our good guys healthy."

This time around, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound safety is in camp with the New York Jets, hoping to win a spot on the 53-man roster as a special teams ace.

"I don't think I'm an underdog," said Ventrone. "I just think I'm one of those blue-collar guys that's going to come out here and just bust his butt every day and hope for the best."

So far, so good. He's had a good camp, had three tackles in the Jets' two preseason games, been in on a handful of other plays and even practiced with the second-team defense.

"A lot of those guys carve out that niche first," coach Eric Mangini said. "That's how they make the team and as they're there, they develop more as role players on defense or offense, sometimes develop into a full-time starter."

Trying to make an impression is nothing new for Ventrone.

Despite obvious speed and skills in high school -- he still holds school records in the long and triple jumps as well as the 100-meter dash at Chartiers Valley High School in Pittsburgh -- Ventrone didn't get much attention from Division I schools, and only a few scholarship offers from I-AA schools.

So, he ended up at Villanova, where he quickly developed a reputation for being a big-time playmaker and punishing tackler. He had 251 tackles, two sacks, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries for the Wildcats.

"I like hitting," said Ventrone, nicknamed "Bubba" as a baby because he had a large head when he was born. "I mean, that's a part of my game. I like contact. I feel like I'm a pretty aggressive player, so I'm not afraid to butt heads with anybody."

His stock rose so much in college he was considered by some a possible mid-round draft pick -- until he broke a leg in the fourth game of his senior season.

When the 2005 NFL draft came and went without him, Ventrone wondered if he'd get a shot to play at the next level.

"It was tough, but I feel like everything happens for a reason," said Ventrone, who graduated from Villanova with a degree in finance. "I guess the reason for me to get injured was to see if I was tough enough to come back from that and overcome adversity. I had to work that much harder to get noticed after the injury, but it paid off."

Eventually, the Patriots signed him to a free-agent contract because Mangini, then New England's defensive coordinator, liked what he saw on tape.

"He was a guy that popped off the screen," Mangini said. "He'd blow people up. A lot of big hits."

After a rookie season on the Patriots' practice squad and a stint with Cologne in NFL Europa, more disappointment followed, as he spent last season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury suffered near the end of training camp.

"It ended up good for me because coming from a smaller school, I guess the adjustment to this level was somewhat tough," Ventrone said. "I was able to sit in on meetings and learn a lot from veteran players throughout the season. I understand the game a lot more than I did in my rookie year."

After being cut by New England in February, the Jets signed him eight days later. Mangini compared him to former Jets, Patriots and Saints safety Victor Green, who took a similar path to become a standout safety in the NFL from 1993-2003.

Before that can happen, Ventrone needs to make the Jets' roster.

"I've been in the league for a couple of years, but I really haven't played in an official game," he said. "So I don't know if I've actually made it yet. I've just got to keep working hard and making plays."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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