Coach Pat Shurmur said back in December that left guard Will Hernandez was going to have an "ah-ha" moment sometime in the offseason. He was going to say, "Wow, when this thing started I didn't know much about what was going on, but now the next time through I'll have so much more of an idea."
Well, the time has come. Did he have that realization? You bet.
"It definitely doesn't even feel like the same time of year that I had last year," Hernandez said at the end of the offseason program. "It feels like a completely different time of year to me. I feel like I'm a lot more comfortable here and I feel like I can breathe. I'm not struggling to learn the whole playbook, cram everything down, learn everything, make sure I don't mess up. I'm actually able to enjoy it, but at the same time, work hard and get to know these guys even better."
This is the time of year when the entire NFL takes a collective breath before training camps open in a little less than a month.For sophomores like Hernandez, it's the first one in a long time. As rookies, they jump from their final college game straight into training for the combine. Then some have the Senior Bowl, the actual combine, pro days, official draft visits and, of course, the draft itself, which they only get to enjoy for a few days before reporting for rookie minicamp.
Nevertheless, Hernandez navigated his rookie season better than most at his position. The Pro Football Writers of America voted him on their All-Rookie Team, where he was joined by running back Saquon Barkley.
Hernandez is a big piece in general manager Dave Gettleman's rebuilding of the offensive line which, after two full draft and free agency cycles, figures to be one of the team's best in recent memory. With Hernandez and Nate Solder locking up the left side, Gettleman re-signed Jon Halapio and Spencer Pulley to compete at center. He also acquired veterans Kevin Zeitler and Mike Remmers at right guard and right tackle, respectively. Zeitler is a 100-game starter, and Hernandez is learning all he can from the former Brown and Bengal.
"He's been phenomenal, not only as a player but as a teacher, too," Hernandez said. "He's taught a lot of young guys, including myself, a lot of technique. He was one of the top pass protectors in the league last year, so he definitely has a lot to offer and he's passing it on to the young guys, myself also, and we're really glad to have him."
Not only are Hernandez and Zeitler playing the same position, just on opposite sides, they are known as two of the strongest players in the weight room. When asked about his first impression of the young guard, Zeitler said he is "very, very strong" and thinks he can be "special."
"He wants to work and he wants to get better every day," Zeitler added. "I think that's just the basis of someone who wants to be good in this league."
Although Solder and Remmers were sidelined this spring while recovering from surgeries, the bookend tackles are on track to be ready for the season. In the meantime, the rest of the linemen practiced like a "bunch of dogs", according to Hernandez. He meant that in the good way. Shurmur repeatedly praised the competitive spirit of spring practices, despite non-contact rules. Those limitations change at training camp.
"We can't come off the ball 100 miles per hour," Hernandez said of the offseason program. "So the biggest thing for us is getting the playbook down, getting the proper technique and steps, little things like that, because once camp comes around and we throw the pads on, that's not necessarily the first thing you're thinking about. You're thinking about not getting blown up by the guy across from you. Now is the time to work on those things, and then the physicality, the hard hitting and all that, will come when the pads come on."
Then this offensive line can start to show what many think it can become.
"I think they always say from your first to your second year is the biggest step in improvement," said Solder, a former Patriot who signed with the Giants last offseason. "I have seen a lot of improvement throughout our whole group, so maybe you can characterize not just a person but the whole group from one year to two years and make a big improvement. Certainly our expectations are sky high."