Cumberland pursues NFL dreams

CORTLAND, N.Y. — When Jeff Cumberland finished his football career at the University, he hoped that his phone would ring on draft day and his dream of joining a NFL franchise would be fulfilled. That plan never materialized, and the undrafted 6-foot-4, 260-pound tight end prospect was left waiting to sign as a free agent. The New York Jets were willing to give the college wide receiver a chance to make the 53 man roster, though.

Cumberland has embraced this opportunity at Jets camp and has set out on his quest to play in the NFL.

With three additional Illini on the Jets’ training camp roster — right guard Brandon Moore, punter Steve Weatherford and fullback Jason Davis — Cumberland has had a nice support group to help him through his first training camp.

“It’s been awesome (having four Illini) in the locker room,” explained Weatherford. “Just coming in and having instant family, it really eases you into the comfort of the team.”

In just the first few days of camp, Cumberland wowed the coaching staff and veterans with his talent and effort.

“All the players and coaches have been raving about Jeff making a lot of plays,” Moore said.

“I’ve been going hard every day and catching every ball they throw at me,” Cumberland said. “On special teams, I’ve been busting my butt and going hard every play.”

In addition to the organization taking notice, fans and the New York media attending practices at SUNY Cortland have also caught on that Cumberland is serious about making the cut.

For most rookies, the added presence of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” would be a major distraction, but Cumberland is confident he has it under control.

“I was mic’ed up once, so it’s going well,” Cumberland said. “At school we had (the Big Ten Network show “The Journey”), so it is very similar to that.”

Cumberland has found comfort in his dorm room during training camp, even saying he prefers his quarters now compared to his freshman days back in the Six Pack because his dorm at Jets camp has air conditioning.

Head coaches Rex Ryan of the Jets and Ron Zook of the Illini have defensive backgrounds, and in spite of the differing offensive playbooks run by both squads, Cumberland’s adjustment to the pace of the NFL has been easy.

“We huddle here, so the pace is slower,” Cumberland explained. “Back at school with the spread offense, we went no huddle and pretty fast, so I’m used to going at this pace.”

Not much has changed as far as his head coaches’ intensity, as both Ryan and Zook are known for never letting their players forget they are around, but Cumberland feels that Ryan can be a bit of a jokester at times.

One player in particular on the Jets roster handed Cumberland and Zook a difficult loss to swallow. Starting quarterback Mark Sanchez was the backup signal caller for the USC Trojans during their defeat of the Illini in the 2008 Rose Bowl.

The rookie tight end swears there are no hard feelings between the two.

“As long as he is getting the ball to me on time and helping us win games, it’s all right with me (that he’s the quarterback).

Cumberland, who accrued over 1,000 receiving yards during his time in orange and blue, finds himself in good position to make the regular season roster despite a concussion that limited him for a few days of practice.

“I see myself fitting in on all the special teams,” Cumberland said. “I feel like I can come out here and give a lot with my size and my speed … but whatever my role is with the team I feel like I can go out and execute it.”

If he does find himself in “Gang Green” come Sept. 13, he will hear a spelling chant from the crowd, but it won’t be the one he’s used to, “I-L-L-I-N-I”.

Instead, Cumberland will hear Fireman Ed leading the Jets faithful in “J-E-T-S-JETS-JETS-JETS”.