EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Everett Withers is in his first season as the Giants’ defensive backs coach, so it’s probably fitting he leads a 15-man unit that has just four holdovers from last season.
Right cornerback Janoris Jenkins started every game, safety Michael Thomas played in every contest, and corner Grant Haley and safety Sean Chandler made significant contributions as undrafted rookies.
Withers’ group includes two high-profile offseason acquisitions who start at safety in Jabrill Peppers and Antoine Bethea (a 14-year veteran) and three cornerbacks selected in the NFL Draft: DeAndre Baker in the first round, Julian Love in the fourth and Corey Ballentine in the sixth.
“I think since the springtime, the guys have gotten acclimated to each other,” Withers said. “Some guys spent some time together this summer working out and doing some things. I think the group is gelling well so far during camp.”
The players in the secondary have some sizeable differences in game experience. Jenkins is an eight-year veteran who has played in 100 regular-season games with 98 starts. Just two of the other eight corners – Antonio Hamilton and Haley - have played in a regular-season game. Their totals are 35 games and nine starts, all by Haley.
How can Withers compensate for that lack of experience?
“I think more of what you do is get as much live action as you can out here,” Withers said. “Put as much pressure on them out here as possible as far as making plays in more situations, understanding down and distance, and putting them in as many of those situations as you can right now.”
Withers, who was the head coach at Texas State University the previous three seasons, praised each of his three draft choices. Baker, the 30th overall selection from Georgia, has been working with the first team since the spring and is the favorite to open the season as the starting left cornerback.
“He’s done well so far during camp, and hopefully he continues to improve,” Withers said. “As he improves, his confidence level will continue to get stronger. Hopefully, by the time we get to preseason game one, he feels really comfortable in what he’s doing – and we will, too. We do now, because we’ve got him out there right now.”
Love, the 108th choice from Notre Dame, has worked on the outside, at nickel corner, and at safety.
“He’s done really well,” Withers said. “He’s a sharp kid, he has a lot of spatial awareness, he understands football, (and he has) a really good football IQ. We kind of told him again in the rookie portion of training camp that we were going to give him some reps at safety more, and he embraced it and he’s done well. I think he’s done well at both spots.”
Ballentine, taken 180th overall, is making the challenging transition from Division II Washburn University to the NFL. But he did win the Cliff Harris Award as the small college defensive player of the year.
“Corey is a very eager young man to learn technique and fundamentals,” Withers said. “He’s worked his tail off this offseason. He texted me probably four or five times a week during the summer about questions on coverages, so that’s what you like about him. He’s got some physical tools that God gave him, so now it’s just a matter of putting that all together. He’s done well the past few days of practice.”
Now Withers just as to mold this disparate group into a high-functioning unit.
“I don’t know if it’s difficult,” he said. “There are some challenges because you have so much youth, but I also believe it’s a clean slate, too. So what they learn, they learn together as a new group. They’re not bringing a whole bunch of things in from other places, so they learn together as a new group and I think that has some benefit to it.”
*Head coach Pat Shurmur said it’s “possible” Ballentine will get a look as a kickoff returner. At Washburn, Ballentine averaged 24.8 yards on 46 runbacks.
“He’s worked at it,” Shurmur said. “We’re getting to know him a little bit more as we go through this, as he does more and more, both on defense and on special teams. I think he’s got a really bright future, and kick returns could be part of that.”
*Sterling Shepard again practiced in a no-contact yellow pinny, running routes and mostly not having the ball thrown to him. The fourth-year wide receiver is recovering from a broken thumb.
“I think it’s a good thing that he’s out there,” Shurmur said. “He can catch the ball with one hand. The yellow jersey means don’t throw it to him. It also means on defense, don’t hit him. I think that part is good. You’ve got to practice football. It’s something that him being out there is a good thing. It also shows it’s a thumb. We’ll worry about that as we go.”
Shurmur dismissed the notion that putting Shepard on the field is a risky proposition.
“Any player practicing, there’s a little bit of a risk - for anything,” Shurmur said. “That’s why we try to be smart. That’s why we try to watch the players and see individually where they’re at, and then go from there. Because if not, we’d just throw everybody in bubble wrap and we’ll see you opening day. We all understand that that’s not how we do it. Now the challenge is to be smart. Guys that are dealing with injuries, bring them back at the pace that they can come back. But also, then be able to practice.
“He wants to be out here. He’s a team player. He knows he needs to work. We all do. Ideally, every player practices every day. You can just look at every team throughout the league. There’s guys on every team that, for whatever reason, aren’t practicing and they’ll be back tomorrow, aren’t practicing and they’ll be back in two days. Then there are guys that are practicing. That’s just the nature of training camp because of some of the physicality that goes with it.”
*The Giants moved their practice indoors for the second day in a row because of inclement weather.