FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Third year offensive lineman Austin Howard, Rex Ryan announced at his Thursday’s press conference, will be replacing Wayne Hunter at the right tackle position this Sunday as the Jets host the Carolina Panthers for the team’s third — and most important — preseason game.

Howard, who boasts a career total of four games on his resume, has been impressive in training camp. Drawing the praise of Tony Sparano and Ryan, Howard assumes the role of sparking an offensive line unit that has given up 12 sacks in two preseason games.

He’ll have to do all that in starting at right tackle for the first time in his career.

“Every time you’re on the field is a great opportunity [to prove yourself] whether it’s with the 1’s, 2’s or 3’s. It’s your time out there and you have to take advantage of such opportunities. If it’s a practice or a game it’s important to stay consistent with your play,” Howard said after Sundays 26-3 loss to the New York Giants.

Howard, 25, went undrafted out of Northern Iowa before being signed by the Philadelphia Eagles on April 27, 2010. After making the team and playing in four games that season, he was waived by the Eagles on the final day of rosters cuts before the 2011 season. He spent marginal time on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad before the Jets signed him to their active roster on November 25, 2011.

Nick Mangold (left) and Matt Slauson will have a new addition to their starting unit on Sunday against the Panthers. (JetsInsider.com Photo).

Hunter, who started all 16 games last season for the Jets, replaced former Pro Bowl lineman Damian Woody in the stretch run of the team’s 2010 season. Struggling throughout the 2011 campaign, his problems persisted this preseason giving up three sacks (and one that was nullified) against the Giants on Saturday.

Ryan stated that Hunter will assume the role as the unit’s sixth lineman — a role that, Ryan said, he excelled in.

“He was so good [as the utility lineman/jumbo TE]. He’ll do whatever is asked of him and we know that. In that role he absolutely excelled for us. I’m excited to get him back in that role. Last year we never had anyone who could play that role,” he said.

Hunter admitted after the loss to the Giants on Sunday that an area he needed to work on was his hands — and work on it fast.

“[A focus area] is mainly my hands. I’m working with [Dave DeGuglielmo] on my technique and we have to get it down because the season is right around the corner. I’m not going to get a lot of action in that Philadelphia game, so it’s really one more game and the rest of the practices,” he said.

The move could solve the growing issue of not having a legitimate blocking tight end. Having Hunter check in as an extra blocker beefs not only beefs up the protection for Sanchez, but makes the Wildcat package a tad more intimidating. The Jets ran the ball with efficiency when Howard was featured in the “jumbo TE” package.

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