EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Oh yes, Mathias Kiwanuka remembers Mark Herzlich from when Herzlich played in college. Herzlich played at Boston College, Kiwanuka's alma mater, and wore No. 94, Kiwanuka's number, and so Kiwanuka was watching him closely as he blossomed into one of the most fearsome defensive players in the college game before being diagnosed with cancer.
"I remember watching and just thinking, 'That's it,'" Kiwanuka said after New York Giants practice Friday. "'They're going to retire No. 94 at Boston College, but it's not going to be for me.'"
The two are now Giants teammates. And while Kiwanuka is going to play defensive end this year, he spent the past two years as a linebacker, in the meeting room with many of the linebackers who are getting attention this summer for being ... well, not very exciting. The Giants' linebacker crew is something of a mishmash of undrafteds, underdrafteds and retreads out of which the team is hoping to find something reliable. But while the group may not look like anything special from the outside, there are things about each player that the team likes. So I asked Kiwanuka to break down some of the guys with whom he spent so much time the past couple of years, starting with his fellow Boston College Eagle.
"He's a very cerebral player, and I hate to say that about somebody, because then it sounds like maybe he's not as good of an athlete. But I went to BC and he wore 94, so I was tuned in the second he stepped on the field. He's every bit as good of an athlete as you're going to find on the field. The difference is that he has that middle linebacker mentality, meaning that when he goes in to study, he studies the entire offense and he studies what our defenses are and where we can be hurt, so he knows when he walks out there what the calls are and what the checks are going to be before he even gets the call a lot of the time. So he's a solid middle linebacker.
"Since I've been here, we've had Antonio Pierce and we've had Chase Blackburn, and I think Mark Herzlich is right in that same category. A.P. and Chase could tell you ... I'd say maybe 50-50 chance, but they could tell you a decent amount of what the play was going to be, run or pass. And in our division, I think they could tell you,like, which direction the run was going to go and what possibilities of which gap it was going to be through. And he's up there."
(Note: Herzlich is competing with Dan Connor for the starting middle linebacker job, but Kiwanuka didn't feel as comfortable breaking down Connor, since Connor wasn't on the team last year and he doesn't know him as well.)
"He's probably one of the faster linebackers out there. I think he's got the capability of playing nickel in some systems, so it gives us a lot of versatility in terms of what you can do, specifically, on passing downs. You leave him on the field, he can cover any receiver the offense is going to put out there. He also blitzes like a big-time linebacker and he can stop the run, too. I think he has Pro Bowl-caliber play in him. As long as he stays healthy, he'll be good.
"You can put him on your best pass-catching receiver or your receiving tight end and he'll more than hold his own. But what I'm saying is, you can also put him on a legitimate slot receiver and leave him out there and he'll do his job."
(So, what does Williams still need to work on?)
"It's just mental. He came in as such a good athlete that he could recover from a lot of situations that he found himself in, and as he gets older, he has to learn that people are going to read and scout him and he's going to be a focal point of who you need to beat in order to get get past the Giants defense. So people are going to be targeting him and he needs to be more disciplined in his reads, but he'll get there."
"Up and comer. I think maybe he didn't get as much time on the field last year, but he's a spectacular athlete. I think in his first preseason game you saw that he was all over the field. He's another one of those guys in the field that I think has it all put together, just needs to go out and do it on Sundays. Definitely the kind of guy who could be a three-down linebacker, for sure."
"He's a veteran. He's a speed guy. If you put him out there and somebody's going to try to turn that corner on him, you see the wheels turn. I think he's proven what he can do on the field. He was a high draft pick and this and that, so everybody knows he has the intangibles. It's more about fitting into the system and getting comfortable with it."
So there you have it. Take it for what it's worth -- this is a teammate, with an interest in pumping these guys up. But I thought it was worth finding out from someone on the inside what it is the Giants see in terms of potential when they look at their linebacker corps.