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Mathias Kiwanuka understands exactly how Osi Umenyiora feels.
While Kiwanuka isn't threatening retirement if things don't work out, the Giants defensive end also has declared that he wants to be a full-time starter this season.
|Kiwanuka is entering the final year of his contract, and has high hopes for this coming season.|
"I am here to win and I feel like I have put in my time and I have done everything that the Giants have asked as far as moving positions," Kiwanuka said Tuesday after doing a photo shoot for Reebok's 2010 Sideline Apparel campaign in Manhattan. "They looked me in the eye and told me I was going to be a defensive end so now it is my job to go out there and retain a starting spot. It doesn't mean it is going to be easy, it is obviously going to be harder than most because there's a guy like Osi competing with me for it. But I am ready to start."
Training camp is still over three months away, but head coach Tom Coughlin will be thrilled to know that Kiwanuka is looking at this season as the biggest of his career. He is entering the fifth and final year of his contract. Of course, Umenyiora wants his starting job back after being demoted for Kiwanuka during the final five games of last season. Umenyiora threatened to retire rather than come off the bench earlier in the year, before offering several no comments last month when asked by reporters whether he is happy.
The Umenyiora situation could escalate into something nasty, like the Jeremy Shockey situation, later this summer. Caught in the middle is Kiwanuka. Kiwanuka remains friendly with Umenyiora, and has said and done all the right things when it comes to the organization and what the team has asked of him. However, Kiwanuka isn't hiding his desire to start here or elsewhere after next season.
"I don't take anything (Umenyiora) says personally because in my mind I feel the same way," said Kiwanuka, who had eight sacks as a starter at defensive end in 2008 after Umenyiora suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason. "I want to be able to start or maybe this isn't the fit for me. I played one year as a linebacker [in 2007] and came back and went through camp as a linebacker and then started that season as defensive end with one week with my hand on the ground and then this [past] year, on third down, they moved me inside at defensive tackle, a position I hadn't played since fifth grade. So that is what I am talking about when I feel like I have done a lot to show my versatility. And I feel like if I am left alone as an end, and start and end the season at one position, then I will be much better off."
The Giants need to figure out what will work after a disastrous 2009. Following their 5-0 start, the Giants lost eight of their last 11 games. In three of their last four games, the Giants' once proud defensive unit surrendered 40 or more points in losses to the Eagles, Panthers and Vikings. Injuries to key players like linebacker Antonio Pierce and safety Kenny Phillips played a major role, but the defense had much bigger problems than injuries.
"It started out with good intentions, players were doing more than they were asked to do in an attempt to make up or compensate for issues that we couldn't correct from one week to another," Kiwanuka explained. "And then from there it just snowballed into when you were on the field, you had 11 guys freelancing and you have no idea where the other person is going to be or what to expect and teams are taking advantage of it. Once things started going downhill, people quit buying into the system and it is tough. There were errors all over the board."
Kiwanuka didn't say anything specifically about former defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan, who was fired after the season, but it's not hard to figure out that the players didn't respond to Sheridan.
"We didn't believe in the system that we had and people didn't trust that the positions that we were put in were always going to work," Kiwanuka said when asked what went wrong last season. "We had a high enough of a maturity level to overcome it but for some reason the passion just wasn't there."
Kiwanuka said the passion is there this offseason, and that attendance at the training facility is higher than normal. Phillips has been one of the Giants at the facility working hard on his rehab from serious knee surgery. The safety was cleared to run straight ahead two weeks ago, and he declared he would play if there was a game tomorrow. Of course, Phillips still has a long road to recovery, but he insists that everything is going as planned following surgery on his left knee to deal with his condition, known as patellofemoral arthritis, which sidelined him for the season after just two games last year.
"Everything has been going pretty well, the doctors and trainers are happy with the schedule," said Phillips, who also participated in the Reebok photo shoot. "I feel real good. I think I will be ready to go by start of training camp.
"I know a lot of people are counting me out and don't feel I can be the same player ever again which is crazy but I feel I can prove everybody wrong."
Phillips wants to help the Giants defense prove it can return to the level it was at prior to last season. Kiwanuka thinks that will happen under new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.
"He has a lot of fire and energy and he is good at communicating with people," Kiwanuka said. "He listens. I think (Fewell's scheme) will be a better fit. I don't think anybody will have a problem buying into the system."
But it remains to be seen who Fewell will start at defensive end opposite Justin Tuck. Kiwanuka is ready to show he's the guy.
"I looked at last year as a big year," said Kiwanuka, who had three sacks last season. "But this year is definitely make-or-break time for me."
Ohm Youngmisuk covers the NFL for ESPNNewYork.com.