EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – In his 38 years coaching football, Hal Hunter has never mentored a player quite like Kevin Zeitler.
"He is the most serious, focused, all-about-football guy I have ever been around," said Hunter, the Giants' second-year offensive line coach. "I thought it was Kris Dielman (whom Hunter coached in San Diego), but he takes it up a notch. You love being around a guy like that. I worry about him wearing himself out mentally, because he is so focused and so in tune. I think it starts to get contagious with the other guys. He's a no-nonsense guy. Every day he is a man on a mission, his performance is really important to him. You can see it's kind of working through the room a little bit. He brings something really different, I'm excited to have him."
So are the rest of the Giants, who acquired Zeitler on March 13 in a trade with the Cleveland Browns. The 6-4, 330-pound Zeitler is an eight-year veteran who arrived with a reputation as relentless run blocker and punishing pass protector.
He landed in New Jersey soon after the trade and seemingly spent most of his waking hours in the Quest Diagnostics Training Center weight room. Zeitler is engaging and affable when not working, but when it comes to football he takes a very serious approach. He said that's always been true.
"I came from a good high school program (Wisconsin Lutheran in Milwaukee) and a great college program (University of Wisconsin) where that type of stuff was really harped on," he said. "When it's time to work, it's time to work. You might as well use every minute that you can while that task is to get better. Just push it, take it to the limit. Then turn it off later. I got lucky. I got trained up well that way. My parents were very strict on academics and that stuff. That came from there. There are just so many things that built up to it."
Zeitler, a 2012 first-round draft choice by the Cincinnati Bengals, teams with tackle Mike Remmers to form a new right side on the Giants' O-line.
The two players have quickly formed a bond on and off the field. And Remmers has learned enough about Zeitler to know he's a fortunate individual in one sense.
"I wouldn't want to line up across from him, I'll tell you that much," Remmers said. "I'm happy that he's right next to me. He's got a different look in his eye on the field."
Not coincidentally, so does Remmers.
"He is a low-key guy in the room," Hunter said. "He's on point, he's smart. You talk about a guy who turns a switch on, when he's on the field he's a tough, aggressive, nasty, he's a different-type guy. I think he brings a cerebral player to the room and a tough, aggressive guy on the field."
"I think we balance each other out nice," Zeitler said of Remmers. "I'm very hyper-focused, a 'Let's get this done' type, and he takes a little lighter focus. He likes to joke around and have a good time out there, so I think it's a nice balance and keeps us both kind of level."
The two newcomers have helped create a line that has turned the demanding Hunter into a relatively happy camper. The holdovers include guard Will Hernandez and tackle Nate Solder on the left side, and centers Jon Halapio and Spencer Pulley. The top current reserves are tackles Chad Wheeler and Brian Mihalik. Last year, Zeitler and Remmers were in Cleveland and Minnesota, respectively, and Halapio missed the final 14 games after fracturing his ankle and leg.
"I think it's got a different makeup, mentally," Hunter said of his unit. "When you add two veteran players like Mike Remmers and Kevin Zeitler, who are two serious guys who've got a lot of NFL snaps, they're a pro's pro, they are tough, smart. All of a sudden, you've added a lot to your group, so you've got some veteran players there. You get back Jon Halapio, who brings a real toughness about him, you've got Spencer Pulley still in the mix, because I still consider him as starting caliber, and of course you've got Nate on the left side who brings a lot to the group and Will will be a second year older, so you hope that sophomore year, you'd expect a lot of improvement. I just think there's a more serious focus, I would say more of an old-school approach, and that's what those players bring. We've got some good young players coming up, so there's a little bit of competition in there. There's a real focused, determined, work ethic going on right now."
Remmers and Zeitler exemplify the entire line. They are constantly communicating with each other during practice. Out of uniform, they've discovered some shared interests.
"We love video games, specifically Nintendo 64 and arcade games," Remmers said. "We have a lot of movies we like in common. We've been talking video games the last couple of days, though."
Have they competed against each other?
"Not yet," Remmers said. "I think we're going to tonight."
Two large, aggressive guys squaring off in a video game – could get ugly.
"We're very competitive, but I don't think there will be any controllers into the T.V. or anything like that," Remmers said. "We're strictly for relaxing purposes right now."
The entire line hangs together as a group, whether it's in their meeting room, at meals, or in the locker room, where they all dress at one end.
"It's nice to have team-bonding, especially the O-line," Remmers said. "It's a very tight-knit group. We're very close in the locker room. We all eat together. We do everything together, pretty much. If we have some free time, we're all getting together and doing something together. We're always together. The offensive line is a very special group. I've seen that on every team I've ever been on. The O-linemen always stick together."
"We have a good group of vets who have all played on their own different teams and have done some good things," Zeitler said. "Then the rookies, they're buying in real quick. They're learning and trying to figure this whole NFL thing out. But I feel like everyone gets along pretty well, and that's a good little factor to have."
The closeness, skill and determination of the linemen bodes well for Eli Manning, Saquon Barkley and rest of the Giants' offense.
*Linebacker B.J. Goodson missed practice after hurting his hamstring yesterday.
"It's not terrible," coach Pat Shurmur said. "We'll see. He'll be back soon."
Rookie fifth-round draft choice Ryan Connelly took several first-team reps.
*Cornerback Sam Beal, who returned to individual drills yesterday, was sidelined today because of a persistent hamstring strain.
"He hasn't been out there a ton," Shurmur said. "He's wrestling with his hamstring and all. But his movement skills are good. He's able to move around. He hasn't really been able to get involved with the physical part of practice yet. But he does move around really well."
*Former Giants quarterback and current CBS studio analyst Phil Simms watched practice.