HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) -When the NFL season began, Abram Elam was out of a job.
A few months later, the hard-hitting safety is firmly entrenched in the New York Jets' starting lineup.
``That's always been my dream and I just thank the coaching staff for having me prepared and giving me the opportunity,'' Elam said. ``I feel like I'm getting more comfortable each and every week with each and every start.''
Elam, who spent his rookie season with Dallas but was one of the Cowboys' last preseason cuts, has become a steady performer playing alongside Kerry Rhodes in the secondary. He has 55 tackles, including seven on special teams, and started the last six games for the Jets.
``I appreciate this opportunity because I know it's not given to everybody,'' Elam said. ``I thank God for putting me in this situation and allowing me to get a chance to follow my dream.''
That didn't always appear to be a possibility because of a poor decision he made five years ago.
In April 2002, Elam and three Notre Dame teammates were accused of sexually assaulting a female student at an off-campus house. Criminal charges, including rape or conspiracy to commit rape, were filed against the four after they were expelled by the university that May.
Elam, who wasn't charged with rape, was convicted of sexual battery, the least serious of three charges against him, and received two years' probation. Elam's former teammates, who were charged with rape, were not convicted.
After two years of legal troubles and soul searching, Elam returned to football and played one season at Kent State. He had 64 tackles and three interceptions as he tried to put his life and football career back on track.
Elam went undrafted and signed with Dallas last season, playing mostly on special teams and recording 15 tackles. After the Cowboys waived him on Sept. 2, New York did a thorough background check that included coach Eric Mangini speaking to Bill Parcells, Elam's former coach with the Cowboys, and Dean Pees, Elam's college coach at Kent State. The Jets were satisfied and signed him during the second week of the season.
He hasn't forgotten about the incident at Notre Dame, but has tried to move on.
``I'm just focused on what I need to do right now,'' the 26-year-old Elam said. ``This is my profession, this is my job now and this is the most important thing right now in my life. I'm trying to do everything I know is right and continue to be the person I know I am.''
The Jets like what they've seen from Elam - on and off the field.
``He's done a great job,'' Mangini said. ``What I like about him so much is the tempo he sets at practice. He's another guy that came to a new team, a similar system, but a new team, and wasn't uncomfortable making calls, wasn't uncomfortable establishing a level of practicing, practice habits, things like that.''
Elam was inactive for two weeks after being signed by New York on Sept. 12 while he got accustomed to the Jets' defense. He has helped Rhodes become a more disruptive force the past few weeks; Rhodes has interceptions in each of his last three games.
``The coaches have me playing down in the box more, which allows Kerry to stay back and he can roam,'' Elam said. ``Kerry has great range and he has good ball skills, so he takes advantage of the opportunities.''
Elam recently joined rookie cornerback Darrelle Revis in frequent game film study sessions at Rhodes' home.
``Abe's a good guy, man,'' Rhodes said. ``He's a smart guy and he wants to be a good player. He offered to come over to the house and watch film with me and get better as a player. I took him in and he's done a great job with that. He's just one of those players that wants to be good. He's not going to settle on being average.''
Elam's aggressive approach and hard hits have become a familiar sight, including five games ago when he mistakenly knocked into Revis as Buffalo's Lee Evans broke free and scored the go-ahead touchdown on an 85-yard reception. Elam is trying to save his big hits for opposing wide receivers.
``We try to take care of our teammates throughout the week,'' he said with a smile. ``It's getting later in the season and we want to try to have everybody ready for Sunday, so I just have to understand to tone it down throughout the week and try to take it over to the game.''

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