EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Mathias Kiwanuka is going back to being a defensive end for the New York Giants — and as a starter.
Kiwanuka was thrust into the role earlier this week when Jason Pierre-Paul had surgery to repair a herniated disc in his lower back.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Kiwanuka said, when asked whether he was confident he would be able to step in for the Giants’ most dominant player on defense. “That’s the position I came into this league playing and I’m looking forward to the opportunity. Obviously we’d love to have him back and I’m sure he’ll be back ready to go at a certain point.
“We’re not gonna rush him back for any reason.”
The Giants don’t expect Pierre-Paul back until late in training camp. Coach Tom Coughlin hopes to have him for Week 1, although that might be pushing it.
Until JPP is ready, though, Kiwanuka isn’t a bad option.
Starting isn’t anything new for him. The question for the former Boston College star and 2006 first-round pick has always been where he would play. He has 62 career starts — 31 as a defensive end and 31 as a linebacker.
There is no doubt Kiwanuka is a better defensive end, but the Giants have had a plethora of ends with Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Pierre-Paul through the years. As a result, Kiwanuka took one for the team and used his versatility to play linebacker, so the team would have its best players on the field.
When Umenyiora signed with Atlanta as a free agent in the offseason, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and Coughlin decided to move the 30-year-old Kiwanuka back to end on a full-time basis.
Fellow starting defensive end Tuck knows Kiwanuka is looking forward to having his hand back in the dirt.
“I think he’s going to be kind of like a sleeper at the beginning of the year because a lot of people tend to forget that he’s a pretty good defensive end,” Tuck said. “I’m obviously excited to have him back in that room and I know he’s pretty excited about it.”
Defensive line coach Robert Nunn said that while the loss of Umenyiora was part of the reason for switching Kiwanuka, he also said the constant switching from linebacker to end frequently left “Kiwi” a little uncomfortable on the field. He finished last season with just 37 tackles, three sacks, nine quarterback hits and eight hurries.
“It’s been a long road for me. I’ve been starting at multiple positions,” said Kiwanuka, who missed most of the 2010 season with a neck injury. “I’ve been up and down and back and forth. Moving around and changing . That’s not the big deal to me. The big deal for me is going out there and making sure that I do my job correctly and when I get the opportunity, I make the best of it.”
With Kiwanuka in the starting lineup, the Giants are going to need some of their younger linemen to step up. Third-year pro Adrian Tracy has improved and the Giants are very high on Damontre Moore, the third-round draft pick out of Texas A&M.
“We have plenty of talented guys. Let’s step up and go,” Coughlin said. “There are more opportunities for younger guys. We need them. There it is, you can see it. Competition is looking right at you. You don’t even have to go any further than the first game. So that is the way I would look at it — opportunity.”
There has to be some concern about Pierre-Paul, who wasn’t as dominant as he had been in 2011 when he had 16½ sacks. Opponents double-and-triple teamed him more and it cut his sack total to 6½. The 24-year-old also had 87 tackles, an interception, seven passes defended, a forced fumble, 17 quarterback hits, 23 hurries and 14 tackles for losses in his so-called off season.
Safety Antrel Rolle said teammates knew Pierre-Paul was playing hurt. He also wasn’t surprised by the surgery, which was done after non-surgical therapy failed.
“I knew he was dealing with this for quite a period of time,” Rolle said. “But JPP is a fighter so he wanted to be out there with his guys and fight through pain. But it’s better to be smart in this game, instead of letting it linger.”
NOTES: Coughlin still doesn’t know why WR Hakeem Nicks is skipping the voluntary OTAs. The two have not talked. … The Giants have a mandatory three-day minicamp next week. …. CB Terrell Thomas, who tore his ACL for the second straight season, is going to be used as a combination nickel back and safety this season.
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