EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Any Giants fan with an interest in the team's record book knows Amani Toomer is the franchise's career leader in all the major receiving categories. What isn't as widely known is that the most prolific wideout in team history also owns the Giants record for the longest punt return.
In a season-opening Sunday night game on Sept. 1, 1996, Toomer caught a punt from Buffalo's Chris Mohr and returned it 87 yards for a touchdown in Giants Stadium. It was just the third time he touched the ball in an NFL game. Toomer caught only one pass that rookie season, but he did average 16.6 yards and score two touchdowns on 18 punt returns. He also returned 11 kickoffs for a 17.4-yard average. When Toomer retired following the 2008 season and 201 regular-season and postseason games, the 87-yarder was still the longest play of his career.
The Giants play another Sunday night season opener this weekend, and once again a Giants rookie offensive player should get his first opportunity to make an initial impact on special teams. Running back Eric Gray, the team's fifth-round draft choice this year, is listed as the top punt and kickoff returner on the team's depth chart for the game against the Dallas Cowboys. Indeed, if the Giants receive the opening kickoff, Gray could be the first player on the team to touch the football in the 2023 season.
"I didn't think about that, but that definitely would be cool," Gray said this week. "I hope they don't kick it in the back at the end zone."
If they don't and Gray runs it back, he will become the first Giants rookie with a kickoff return in a season opener since Corey Ballentine at Dallas on Sept. 8, 2019 (two returns for 46 yards). Should Gray return a punt, he would be the first Giants rookie to do so in a Kickoff Weekend game since Mark Jones at Philadelphia on Sept. 12, 2004 (one return for eight yards).
"That's a big opportunity for me," Gray said. "I'm thankful that they allowed me to be able to go back and trust in me with a big play. That's a big exchange of field position. So, I'm just thankful and I'm ready for it in terms of the running game."
Because of his heavy workload at running back, Gray was an infrequent returner in college. In 2019-20 at the University of Tennessee, he returned seven punts for 47 yards. After transferring to Oklahoma, Gray returned four kickoffs for 74 yards and two punts for zero yards in 2021. Last season, he did not have a single return.
"I was such a part of the offense, so they didn't overload me with returning," Gray said. "I returned them every time in practice. I just never did it in the game. It hasn't been too long(since he did it in a game). I feel like I'm good back there. I've been doing the reps all training camp, so I feel comfortable."
The Giants gave him an opportunity to return during the spring OTAs, in camp and in the team's three preseason games. He didn't disappoint and though they have more experienced return specialist options, the Giants have no trepidation about having Gray handle the return duties under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football.
"Eric Gray has been in the University of Tennessee's stadium, Neyland Stadium, and it fits 110,000 people," special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said. "He's played in Oklahoma, again, Red River shootout and all that stuff. It's not too big for the kid. He knows what he's doing. He's done it, and we feel comfortable with him."
Gray fulfills the top requisite for a return man – he secures thefootball. Turnovers will not be tolerated. Return yardage is like extra credit, though the Giants believe Gray can provide it.
"He's a strong runner," McGaughey said. "He has really good vision. Just look forward to seeing him make plays. He's a young kid growing up in the system, and we'll see what happens, but Eric has plenty of ability."
And confidence that he can produce in the return role.
"First and foremost is catching the ball, protecting the ball," Gray said. "Because at the end of the day, you're getting the ball back, they're punting it back to you. But being able to steal field position in that area, being able to just be dynamic back there, it's a lot of field position that you can get, even if you don't return it, you take 20 yards, 30 yards. That's a lot for an offense to call plays."
Though he did play in two Power 5 conferences and in front of huge crowds, Gray is aware the NFL on Sunday night is a different deal.
"I'm definitely curious, I think all of us rookies are very curious about that atmosphere, Sunday Night Football playing against the Cowboys," Gray said. "But like I tell myself, don't get too high. I don't get too low at the end of the day. It's football. I've been doing that my whole life. … I'm not a nervous guy. You always get those nerves, but I always kind of calm myself down, do that positive self-talk. Whatever happens in the game, just play the next play."
And hopefully make it a big one, though Gray's personal expectations for his rookie season are more modest.
"It's for me just taking advantage of my opportunities when my opportunities come, just being ready at all times," he said. "You never know when that rep is gonna come, when they're gonna call your number. The moment they call your number, you want to be ready and keep the chain moving."
View photos of the Giants' 2023 rookie class in action during training camp and preseason.
*Gray isn't the only player who can achieve rare rookie feats on Sunday.
If, as expected, Deonte Banks and Tre Hawkins are the first-snap cornerbacks, it will mark the first time in the Super Bowl era the Giants will start two rookie corners in the season opener. They last started two rookies in their secondary in their opening game in 1980, when Mark Haynes (right cornerback) and Bud Hebert (free safety) started in a 41-35 victory against the Cardinals in St. Louis.
The last NFL team to start a pair of rookie corners in the season's first game was the 2008 Kansas City Chiefs (Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers).
*Second-round draft choice John Michael Schmitz is the Giants' first-team center. He will be the first Giants rookie to start at center in a season opener since Derek Engler in 1997.
*If Banks, Hawkins and Schmitz all start, the Giants will have three rookie draft choices among their starters in their opener for the first time since 2018 (Saquon Barkley, Will Hernandez, and B.J. Hill).