HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) -Jacob Bender spent last summer preparing for his senior season at Nicholls State, his thoughts of getting to the NFL someday merely a distant wish.
The big offensive lineman has made it - all the way from the Division I-AA school in Thibodaux, La., to the starting lineup of the New York Jets.
``The whole NFL thing has always been like a crazy dream and, finally, I'm here,'' Bender said Thursday.
He sure is, but not how he might have imagined.
The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Bender was one of the most dominant left tackles among small-college players, and seemed to be a nice fit as a backup to D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Anthony Clement when the Jets selected him in the sixth round in April.
Instead, Bender will likely be the Jets' starting left guard when New York plays the Giants on Saturday night.
The Jets finally traded disgruntled Pete Kendall, the incumbent at the position, to Washington on Thursday. Kendall's heir apparent, Adrien Clarke, had been taking snaps with the first-team offense until Sunday, when Bender surprisingly was thrust into the spot.
``At guard, things just happen quicker,'' Bender said. ``You've got to take shorter movements, whereas at tackle, you have a little bit more time for things to develop. That's really one of the main differences.''
Bender, whose only scholarship offer out of high school came from Nicholls State, made a name for himself as a pancaking left tackle who allowed no sacks in his senior season. He's aware there are skeptics who may think a rookie who's still learning how to pass protect - Nicholls State mainly runs the triple option - isn't ready to be a full-time starter in the NFL.
``It doesn't matter what competition you've played against,'' Bender said. ``When you're in the NFL, you're in the NFL. Somebody obviously thought you were good enough to make it here. I'm going to go out there and work my hardest and show everybody what I've got.''
If he develops into anywhere close to the player Kendall is, the Jets will be lucky. Kendall was a leader on the field and in the locker room, and one of the most approachable players on the team.
``He was an important part of this ballclub,'' receiver Laveranues Coles said. ``He was our player rep and anytime you have a guy that is a player rep and a leader in the locker room and he was a captain last year also, it's always a great loss. He's a guy the guys will miss.''
Despite the tenuous situation Kendall was embroiled in, the veteran was still willing to help the young players - even one who would ultimately replace him.
``I would come to the sidelines and Pete would go, 'All right, look, you took this step wrong,' or, 'You did this,''' Bender said. ``I was just thankful to spend some time with Pete and have him help me out. I'm just going to keep working.''
Bender played tackle in the Jets' preseason opener against Atlanta two weeks ago. After that game, the coaching staff approached the rookie about moving to guard.
``I said, 'All right, let's do it,'' Bender recalled.
Beyond Bender, the team still has other options at left guard, but they, too, are unproven.
Clarke missed all of last season after being waived by Philadelphia following training camp. He played in 13 games for the Eagles in 2005, but wasn't impressive in two preseason games with the Jets.
Veteran Wade Smith is a career backup, while the other players listed on the depth chart at guard - Dominic Moran, Nick Smith and Robert Turner - are undrafted rookies.
``That's why you have the training camp, is to prepare the team and to also evaluate the people on the team and try to put the best combination of people together,'' coach Eric Mangini said.
It's possible that the player who starts at left guard against New England in the season opener on Sept. 9 isn't on the roster yet, a theory Mangini didn't exactly shoot down.
``With the process that we go through, looking at things each night, I'd say the roster is fluid and we're constantly looking to see if we can help the team win,'' Mangini said.
Until that happens, Bender is the Jets' man at left guard - and that's OK to his linemates.
``Jacob is coming along really well,'' right guard Brandon Moore said. ``The one thing I noticed with him is that he doesn't repeat a lot of the same mistakes over and over again. I think that's what you want to see out of a young player.''

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