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By J. Vrentas

Jets' Jerricho Cotchery recovered from back surgery, returns to football field

Published: Friday, July 22, 2011, 5:00 AM Updated: Friday, July 22, 2011, 5:59 AM


Jerricho Cotchery said he felt like a 7-year-old kid last week, running and cutting at full speed in the summer heat, catching passes from Mark Sanchez at a New Jersey high school field.

For five months, the Jets receiver had dedicated himself to the laborious rehabilitation from offseason back surgery.After receiving full medical clearance, practicing routes with his quarterback was Cotchery’s reward.

“When you hit a field, you’re out there in open space and you’ve just got to turn it on,” Cotchery said this week at TEST Sports Club in Martinsville, where he has rehabbed and trained. “I was able to do that and not be cautious. It felt good to be able to go out there and make cuts and not think about anything.”

Pending the resolution of the NFL’s labor dispute, the Jets may soon be reporting to Florham Park for training camp — and Cotchery said the back specialist who performed his surgery gave him the official go-ahead last week to participate fully. Cotchery, who underwent a microdiscectomy to shave off part of a troublesome herniated disc, figures the team may want to ease him back in as a precaution, though.

Cotchery’s recent “A-plus” bill of health is good news for the Jets, who have three receivers — Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes and Brad Smith — due to be free agents when the league returns to business. In his seven seasons with the Jets, Cotchery has been a reliable staple of their receiving corps, and he was determined to be ready to fill that role again this fall.

In fact, the 29-year-old said he feels physically rejuvenated, a product of relieving the painful condition in his back and a meticulous training and rehab program that corrected movement patterns that had placed stress on his body.

“The way the season went last year for me, I’m driven to get back on the field and play the way I’m capable of playing,” Cotchery said. “Not having experienced something this significant and not knowing how to battle through it, through the course of a year was draining for me. I spent a number of hours getting ready physically for the games, and the mental part suffered.”

Cotchery’s back had bothered him since 2009, when he felt tightness there after aggravating a hamstring injury in a Monday night game against Miami. An MRI after the season revealed the herniated disc, but the bulge was small enough then that surgery was not recommended.

It grew last season. Cotchery had epidurals in the summer and during the bye week, but the pain sharpened in October. The herniated disc pushed against a main nerve that ran down his left leg, causing pain in his hamstring and, by the postseason, in his foot so that he had trouble walking.

After surgery in February, Cotchery immediately felt a release of pressure in his back, though it took time for the nerve to calm down. He rested for six weeks, then began training sessions that sometimes lasted as long as four hours.

But the rehab, and the lockout, gave him a chance to address flaws in his movements that have stressed his body. With the trainers at TEST, he worked on using the strong glute muscles in his buttocks to explode, rather than his back. He learned to flex his foot up when running, to avoid putting pressure on his hamstrings and back.

“The past couple years I’ve been dealing with the back, and you get used to your body not working the right way,” Cotchery said. “But little things make a huge difference. I’m better equipped moving forward.”

Cotchery says these small adjustments could prolong the length of his career. In the short-term, he’s looking forward to a healthy football season, without the painful condition of last fall — or the partially torn groin he believes was related.

Between Cotchery’s 41 catches for 433 yards and two touchdowns were a handful of uncharacteristic drops he’d like to have back. While Edwards, Holmes and Smith have uncertain futures with the Jets right now, Cotchery has been focused on making sure the unit’s constant presence can be a consistent force.

“I would have loved to make some plays that I should have made last year,” Cotchery said. “I think that would have helped us win more games and help us get a home game in the playoffs.

“But hey, it happens, and I’m excited to get back out there, get back to doing the things that everybody knows me for: Going out and working hard, being reliable, making plays. If you’re not doing that, then who are you? That’s what I’m anxious to do.”

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