- Kieran Darcy, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The biggest story of the Giants' offseason program, which concluded Thursday, was the absence of wide receivers Hakeem Nicks (from voluntary OTAs) and Victor Cruz (from OTAs and this week's minicamp).
But the player offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride gushed about following the team's brief walkthrough Thursday morning was second-year wideout Rueben Randle.
"Rueben you saw emerge from a guy that showed flashes at times and always caught the ball well, but maybe didn't always run the routes as precisely, as crisply as you wanted, didn't have quite the understanding you wanted," Gilbride said. "[Over the past month] he looked like a guy that's been here for five or six years. He really benefited from the opportunity."
The team's second-round draft pick in 2012, Randle had just 19 catches for 298 yards in his rookie season. His work ethic was questioned early in the year. But with Nicks skipping OTAs for unspecified reasons, and Cruz absent while his contract negotiations continue, Randle became Eli Manning's primary target.
"His whole demeanor, his whole professionalism was outstanding," Gilbride said. "Now, is that because [Nicks and Cruz] weren't here, or because he got more reps, I don't know. But he certainly stepped into a leadership role.
"Not only did he grow, he kind of became the bell cow of the receiving corps. He was first in line and did all those things. That was not what we saw last year, not by a long shot. So to see him grow like that was a great step forward for him that will help us down the road."
Nicks returned to the practice field this week, and Cruz is expected to re-sign eventually. But you can expect to see a lot more of Randle in 2013, even with those two on board.
"Oh, he's gonna play. He's gonna play a lot," Gilbride said. "He'll play first, second down, he'll be an outside receiver for us -- whether he's at the X or the Z, he's gonna play. He's looking like he deserves to be out there for significant time."
The Giants' first-round draft pick in 2012, running back David Wilson, might be even more important to the Giants' fortunes this coming season. Wilson had just 71 carries for 358 yards in 2012, backing up veteran Ahmad Bradshaw. But Bradshaw was let go, and is now with the Indianapolis Colts. And Wilson is the leading candidate to be the Giants' primary ballcarrier.
The biggest knock on Wilson as a rookie was his pass-blocking ability. Gilbride said Wilson has made great strides as well.
"You see a guy like David Wilson, who started with no clue on who to block, much less how to block it, [get] to a pretty good understanding of what it is that he has to do," Gilbride said. "Now it's a matter of doing it, and it is a matter of getting better at it. And he's still not 100 percent, he still makes mistakes, but there's certainly been some significant growth."
"His approach has been great, his attitude in terms of trying to work on that aspect of the game," Gilbride said. "He realizes in order to get the playing time that he wants to get that he's gonna have to become a pass receiver, he's gonna have to become a good pass protector, and he's gonna have to be able to do the things that maybe don't fall into the strict definition of running the football. But the good thing is, he's working his tail off."
The Giants are done working, for now -- the team is now officially off until Friday, July 26, the first day of training camp. But the players, with the exception of Nicks and Cruz, have put in a lot of work these past few weeks.
The goal is, of course, Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium, 234 days from now.
And it sounds like two second-year players, Randle and Wilson, will be key pieces to the puzzle.
3dDan Graziano and Adam Caplan