The Giants are in desperate need of someone to step in to the middle of their defense to sure up the front four with the back seven. LB Jonathan Goff was on the verge of doing when he blew out his knee in the beginning of the season. Since then, the team has tried a myriad of things to alleviate his absence. It has been a rough go, to put it lightly.
The loss of Goff has expedited the learning process of four rookies linebackers: Greg Jones, Jacquain Williams, Spencer Paysinger and Mark Herzlich. Jones has been used as the MLB in the base package, which the team abandons in favor of a defensive-back-heavy alignment. Williams, who is not much bigger than a defensive back, sees time a spy and a rover.
Paysinger and Herzlich have been used primarily on special teams. Last week, when Boley -who calls the defensive signals - left the game with a hamstring pull, Paysinger took over and the defense tailed off. Jones also missed some assignments in allowing the 49ers some big plays.
Herzlich has not gotten his chance as of yet. That is about to change, it appears. DC Perry Fewell has said that Herzlich hasn't been used on the defense because he has practiced in formation the team has yet to employ. Fewell also said someone new will wear the headset in Boley's absence.
This Sunday night, the Giants may be ready to hand the headset over to the free-agent rookie out of Boston College who is more famous for his battle with cancer than he is for his football ability. That is another thing that is about to change.
“The better I play, the better my story gets...and obviously my goal right now during the season, in general right now, is to play better," Herzlich said. "I’ve beaten cancer, it’s in my past, but at the same time I continue to be proud of what I’ve accomplished."
Tom Coughlin, who once coached at Boston College, and LB Mathias Kiwanuka - another alumnus - both feel Herzlich will be a big plus for the defense.
"We want to see what he can do and how he will play in there," Coughlin said this week. "We already experienced the fact that he communicates well. He seems to know the defense and he can get us lined up. He is a big strong kid in there. He has been constant in his progress. He is a young linebacker, given the opportunity, we will see how he plays.”
“Watch out for Herzlich now,” said Kiwanuka, as per Jorge Castillo of the Star-Ledger. “He’s going to play well.”
Herzlich was rising star at BC before being diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma in May of 2009. He had just been named the ACC Defensive player of the year several months before and was being tallied as a first or second-round draft choice in the upcoming NFL Draft. His battle with cancer is an inspirational story, for sure.
In September, 2009, Herzlich was declared cancer-free but the treatments and the ordeal left him unable to resume his football career. He returned the next fall, but the ordeal and the missed time caused him to fall off the radar of NFL scouts. This past April, when the draft came and went without Herzlich's name being called, the Giants immediately jumped in and signed him. Another BC alum, CEO John Mara, thought he was worth giving a shot. In fact, he suggested it.
“I suggested it,” Mara said earlier this year. “He’s a great kid and he’s certainly had his share of obstacles to overcome and we’re excited to give him the opportunity.”
The Giants and their fans are excited, too. If Herzlich has truly reverted back to his 2008 form, the Giants have a steal on their hands. Many could not believe he went undrafted. Russ Lande of The Sporting News wrote: "He's a solid third-round prospect because of his ideal size and work ethic. Look for him to be a core member of special teams, and don't be surprised if he gets some playing time on defense as a rookie." CBSSports.com had Herzlich listed as the 17th ranked LB in the draft.
The 24-year-old rookie is unfazed. He is more determined than ever to hit the field - and not just on special teams -but he is prepared to do whatever the Giants require of him.
“I’m itching. I’m itching to play defense. I’ve been playing special teams my whole life, too. I mean, to people who don’t play in the league or follow it real closely, they think special teams is just something off to the side. Just because the camera doesn’t follow us on every play doesn’t mean we don’t take it very seriously. I know we take a lot of pride in special teams. If I get a chance in defense, great; if I don’t, I’ll get my pride on special teams.”
The Giants need a guy to get people lined up and and make plays in the middle. Taking the headset would not be a burden, if that opportunity comes.
“That’s why you play the game,” Herzlich said. “You always want a little more responsibility and a chance to make plays. The more opportunities you’re on the field, the better. That’s how I feel. If I get a chance this week, I’ll be ready. I don’t ever really know until Sunday (what’s going to happen). I’ve been kind of a sub guy in different packages in the past and just happened to have not been on the field. Hopefully, this week it’ll happen.”
It could not be a better time for Herzlich to wrest the mantle and take over this defense. He is from Pennsylvania and has scores of family and friends set to attend the game this week in New Jersey.
"It is Philly week, and we have to make sure we take care of the Eagles at home," Herzlich wrote in his weekly journal for Giants.com. "I’ll have a lot of family coming to this one – my mom, dad, brother, his girlfriend, my cousin. A lot of people are coming. I wasn’t watching the game live last year. To be honest, I never really watch games. I play so much football that I don’t really watch sports ever. But I do remember seeing the replay and remember seeing it all over the place. At the ESPYs I attended, they honored the Eagles for that play and that game..."
This time around he will be front and center.