FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Ryan Spadola is close to attaining what he had thought was unattainable. Spadola, a rookie free agent from Lehigh, has been one the most surprising players with the Jets this preseason. Now, he may make the team’s 53-man roster.
Not bad for a wide receiver who was never offered a major Division I scholarship.
Spadola, 22, will try to solidify his chances in the Jets’ last exhibition game Thursday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Throughout training camp, he has improved in almost every way, from catching passes to running precise routes to contributing on special teams.
“Every day, I’ve been fighting, fighting, fighting to prove people wrong, and that I can play in this league,” Spadola said. “I’m becoming more comfortable in our style of plays and our schemes.”
His production has increased in each of the Jets’ three preseason games.
In Saturday’s game against the Giants, Spadola finished with a touchdown and three catches for a team-leading 110 yards. On his 22-yard touchdown reception from Matt Simms, Spadola beat a cornerback on a sharp route in which he faked to the outside before making a quick pivot for the middle of the end zone. He ran past the safety and showed off his athleticism, perhaps his best trait, in lunging for the ball and catching it with two hands.
In overtime, Spadola set up the winning field goal by finding an opening in the Giants’ zone coverage for a 70-yard catch from Simms. Again, Spadola caught the ball with both hands. Then he gained 39 yards after the catch.
“I’m not the shiftiest guy out there,” he said. “I may be deceptive in speed because I’m a long strider, but I really pride myself on getting two hands on the ball.”
The offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has been complimentary of Spadola’s skills, and Coach Rex Ryan praised him after Monday’s practice.
“The young man is doing a tremendous job,” Ryan said. “All he does is show up and make plays.”
Spadola, 6 feet 3 inches and 220 pounds, described himself as a small kid when he was looking to play college football. A university’s academics were as important to him as its football program, he said, since he did not know if he would develop into an N.F.L. prospect.
Spadola, from Howell, N.J., never had a scholarship at Lehigh. He received some financial aid, but his parents paid most of his tuition.
Jason Miran, Lehigh’s wide receivers coach, said that three years ago the coaching staff was losing confidence in Spadola. Although he was athletic, he was inconsistent, often dropping passes in the first five games of the 2010 season. Against Harvard, he struggled in the first half and had two receptions.
“You’re one mistake away from sitting out of this game,” Miran told Spadola in the locker room.
Miran said that sparked Spadola’s transformation. In the second half, he had 12 catches, tying the program’s single-game record. He finished with 206 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the go-ahead score.
Spadola ended his sophomore year with 1,130 yards and 9 touchdowns. As a junior, he became an all-American and had a Patriot League single-season record of 1,614 yards to go with 96 receptions and 11 touchdowns.
“He’s one of the most determined people I’ve been around,” Miran said. “After his standout year, he was committed to the mental side of the game. That was the biggest change I noticed in him.”
Not everything went smoothly for Spadola at Lehigh.
He was suspended for the Football Championship Subdivision playoff game against North Dakota State in 2011 for retweeting a Twitter message that contained a racial slur against Towson’s football team. Lehigh lost, 24-0, and Spadola issued a written apology.
He missed two games his senior year and lost more than 15 pounds because of mononucleosis, said his agent, Ed Wasielewski. The drop in production (851 yards and 4 touchdowns) and his lack of judgment were enough for N.F.L. scouts to question Spadola.
“I’ll never know the exact answer, but that’s something I really don’t dwell on,” Spadola said of not being drafted. “I’ve had a lot of odds coming against me in this whole process. I wouldn’t go back and change anything. I was able to come here, a local team. I’m in a very fortunate situation.”
Spadola said catching a touchdown pass in MetLife Stadium was an indescribable feeling. After Saturday’s game, he said he was astonished by the number of voice mail messages, text messages and Twitter messages he received. Of course, Miran was among the group.
Besides saying congratulations, Miran told Spadola to stay positive and reminded him that he had not yet accomplished his mission. Spadola said he agreed.
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