Tuck wants to be Giants' lead story

ALBANY, N.Y. -- When Shaun O'Hara arrived for training camp, the New York Giants veteran center felt something was off.

O'Hara quickly realized for the first time in six training camps, Antonio Pierce was missing. Gone was that brash and cocky swagger that oozed out of Pierce daily.

"I texted Antonio the first day and said, 'Hey man, it feels weird to not have you here,'" O'Hara said. "That is one of the things that everybody misses on defense, his personality."

It's almost as if the Giants left East Rutherford forgetting to pack a cell phone charger or a toothbrush. Unfortunately, the Giants can't just go to the nearest Target to get what they need.

Replacing Pierce's voice on the defense will require somebody with experience, credentials and most importantly, talent.

The logical choice is Justin Tuck. The Giants star defensive end knows he is the man who must take the baton and become the defense's next leader, following in the stomping footsteps of Pierce and Michael Strahan.

In fact, Strahan, along with head coach Tom Coughlin, prodded the affable defensive end to step up and be more vocal and become that leader this season.

This may be Eli Manning's team, as the quarterback enters his prime, but he's always been the lead-by-example type. The identity of the Giants and the fiery side of their personality has always seemed to come from the defensive side, from Strahan to Pierce in recent years.

"I think everybody gets mixed up that a leader can only be on defense or offense but there is a leader for the team," Strahan said. "It is about who is going to step up and take the bulls by the horns and be the go-to guy that everybody can count on and the guy that when they have problems they can go to. You got to have that guy. I think they definitely miss that."

Osi Umenyiora has the Pro Bowl credentials but he might not even start as he battles Mathias Kiwanuka for his old job. Safety Antrel Rolle has the personality, and definitely the swagger, but is still fitting in on the team. Ditto for new middle linebacker Keith Bulluck.

Tuck, 27, has the résumé, having been to the Pro Bowl. He has risen to the occasion when the pressure has been at its most suffocating in the Giants' Super Bowl victory over the Patriots.

The 6-5 defensive end is the team's best defensive player and is entering his prime. Also, he already is established as the Giants' mouthpiece when it comes to the media -- something every team leader has to embrace -- and always is accountable whether times are good or bad.

Last season, Tuck felt he could not lead the team when Pierce went down because he was struggling with a shoulder injury.

"It was tough for me to step into that role because I wasn't playing up to that level," Tuck said. "It was hard for me to say, 'You all need to pick this up,' when I couldn't pick it up myself.'"

Tuck is healthy now and ready to embrace a role that might not come naturally to him. While Strahan and Pierce seemed like they were born to lead, Tuck acknowledges he will have to grow into that role. Tuck's personality is a bit more laid back and nicer than the Giants' last two defensive leaders.

But he's working at it. So far in camp, besides working on his swim moves and technique, Tuck has been studying his teammates to gauge the personalities of each guy so he knows how to motivate and handle each player.

"There are so many personalities on the defense, I got to be very diplomatic in certain situations," Tuck said. "You got to know how to push some guy's buttons without pushing them away. In this camp, I am not really talking a lot. I am kind of paying attention to what buttons need to be pushed. Once the season gets in and we kind of get into the game plan, I can kind of step forward and be more of a leader."

When the Giants won the Super Bowl in 2007, the defense had leaders in every meeting room -- from Strahan with the defensive ends to Pierce with the linebackers to Sam Madison with the defensive backs.

"The leadership here has been phenomenal ever since I got here," said Tuck, who is entering his sixth year. "It was easy for [Strahan] because [he had been to] seven Pro Bowls and he is going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer."

"He could've said the sky was green and guys would be like, 'I see the green.'"

If the Giants don't find a new heart and soul of the defense, they might feel like the sky is falling at times this season. It certainly felt that way last year when Pierce went down with a season-ending injury after nine games.

Tuck won't be stomping and shouting the way Strahan did but he will lead this defense in some form or fashion.

"It has to be natural," Tuck said. "When guys feel like you are just putting on a show just because you can, you lose a team very easily like that. I got to find my way and see what works for me and make it my own."

Ohm Youngmisuk covers the Giants for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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