FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — More than 300 miles separate them now, but Ikemefuna Enemkpali and Geno Smith share the same goal: They want nothing more than to put the past, and each other, behind them.
Though forever bonded by a singular act of aggression, the pair is eager for a fresh slate: Smith is still trying to convince the Jets that he’s starting caliber material. Enemkpali is seeking to repair his image while making his mark — figuratively — in Buffalo.
But their careers always will be linked because of one highly-publicized, franchise-altering moment known as “The Punch.”
“2015 was rough man,” Enemkpali told NewYorkUpstate.com after the Bills’ OTA Wednesday. “To have that kind of behind me, you know the fellas still give me a hard time with it all.
“I’m guessing it’s something I’ll never live down. But it is what it is. It’s good to have that behind me.”
A sixth-round pick of the Jets in 2014, Enemkpali became infamous for punching Smith in the face during a training camp altercation in the Jets locker room on Aug. 11, 2015. The cause of the friction? An unpaid $600 debt Enemkpali believes Smith owed. (In an interview with Newsday on Nov. 10, however, Smith denied it. “I didn’t owe him,” he said. “No. That’s the biggest misconception in America.”)
The sucker punch, which led to Enemkpali’s quick dismissal from the team, also resulted in Smith’s jaw being broken in two places. As a result, then-backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was named the starter. And almost a year later, Smith still is trying to reclaim his job, even with Fitzpatrick still a free agent.
Meanwhile, Enemkpali is focused on terrorizing quarterbacks on the field only.
With Bills rookie Shaq Lawson (shoulder surgery) out indefinitely, Enemkpali got first-team reps at outside linebacker on Wednesday. And according to Bills coach Rex Ryan, he has a legitimate chance to win a starting job.
“Absolutely he could do that with Shaq being on the shelf. Yeah, no doubt,” said Ryan, who fanned the flames of the IK-Geno fire last year when he made Enemkpali a team captain for the Jets-Bills game at MetLife Stadium. “ . . . IK is a physical player. He’s doing a much better job in his pass-coverage responsibility. So I could definitely see him pushing for playing time, without question.”
Enemkpali registered nine solo tackles and zero sacks in 11 games for the Bills last year. But he’s hoping the notoriety that came with “The Punch” will fade away.
“Your film is your resume,” he told NewYorkUpstate.com. “I want people to know more about my play and how good of a teammate I am and how good of a leader I am and just a good person in the community. That’s the goal.”
Ryan was the Jets coach when the organization drafted Enemkpali out of Louisiana Tech, and he believes the outside linebacker should be known as more than just “the guy who punched Geno.”
“I thought he did a really good job because that’s not easy,” Ryan told reporters. “He doesn’t want that mark on him. Everybody sees him as the guy who punched Geno or something like that. This guy’s just a football player and that’s what he wants to be known as and that was just an unfortunate thing that happened to him.
“That’s behind him. So his focus is on being the best football player he can be. I know one thing: he fits in great here with his teammates.”