CORTLAND, N.Y. — Mark Sanchez already knows the New York Jets' offense like the back of his hand.
That assumes, of course, the back of his hand still looks the way it did last weekend, tattooed with ballpoint notations and reminders to help him through a morning of training camp.
"Just different plays, different checks," he said, turning over his hand to show the cryptic markings. "Because I didn't have a wristband with a clear sleeve, so I just wrote it down on my hand. I just wanted to make sure I was solid with these two run checks."
If you're the future of an NFL franchise, you can never be too thorough. And Sanchez, the fifth overall draft pick from USC, is determined to show he can make the kind of splash Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco made as rookies last season.
First things first means learning the offense and beating Kellen Clemens for the starting job. The latter isn't a sure thing. That said, no one debates that the job ultimately will belong to Sanchez, who two months ago signed a five-year deal that reportedly included $28 million in guarantees.
Sanchez took a big step toward locking up the No. 1 job by outplaying Clemens in the exhibition opener Friday against St. Louis. On his first play, Sanchez threw a beautiful 48-yard pass to David Clowney, setting the tone for a brief but convincing performance: directing an eight-play, 93-yard touchdown drive on his only series.
"For a rookie to step in on the first play and unleash one, it was pretty impressive," Coach Rex Ryan said after the three-for-four performance. "He showed us everything we needed to see. . . . I mean, shoot, he completed everything."
For Sanchez, the night started with a tiny, humorous gaffe: His mouthpiece fell to the Meadowlands turf the first time he tried barking signals. Oh, well, nobody's perfect.
So far, though, he's well ahead of the learning curve. Even though the Trojans run a pro-style system, Sanchez has spent virtually every available hour at camp either practicing, in meetings, or with his nose buried in the playbook. That's expected.
The Jets have been impressed by how comfortable Sanchez seems in the huddle and how he has learned the basics of a foreign language -- a new offense -- in a few months.
As part of their sleuthing on Sanchez as a player, Jets scouts studied tape of him wearing a microphone in various USC games. Did he speak clearly? Did he rattle off the plays quickly? Did he seem relaxed?
"You can't be a robot in the huddle, that's something we believe very strongly," Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "You're giving a lot of information out, but it's almost like you're carrying on a conversation with five and six guys at a time. It's the ability to say the play but to also give little reminders, to have some enthusiasm about it. That's something that's not easy, especially when you don't know the system.
"So the more comfortable a guy gets with the system, the easier it is for him to step in with some confidence and say, 'Hey, don't forget this . . . Hey, do this . . . OK, I'm gonna go hard count . . . Be alert for this check . . . ' That's something that takes time, and because Mark's worked so hard at it, that's something he's picked up very quickly."
Every first-year NFL quarterback has to make that transition and learn a new offense, so Sanchez isn't the lone ranger.
Some days are better than others too, and not every one of his performances has been a thing of beauty. Last Sunday, the morning after an impressive nighttime debut with the No. 1 offense, he missed two wide-open receivers in red-zone practice sessions. Another day, another opportunity to learn.
"You're not happy about these days," he said afterward. "They don't fire you up and get you excited in the locker room. But at the same time, it's no reason to hang your head. Because today, mentally, I was all there. But the last couple days I had the mental part and the physical part. I made all the throws. I was accurate.
"Today, two touchdowns -- missed them both."
The next day, Sanchez bounced back and outshined Clemens in both the seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 portions of practice.
"When [Sanchez] knows where he's going with the ball, he's pretty dang good," Jets safety Kerry Rhodes said. "He can get it there. . . . For him right now, it's going to be about getting reps. We try to make it as real as we can, but it's not as real as it's going to be when he can get hit."
Sanchez says he feels very comfortable with the physical demands of the job and that the most difficult part so far has been knowing the offense to the point where it's second nature.
"The physical mistakes, you fix those right away," he said. "But the mental things, those are big. I'm getting those down. I'm making the right reads. Now I just have to put the throw there -- and I can make all these throws. I've made them before."