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Young players earn their way onto 53-man roster

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – For a player on the roster bubble, nothing is worse on NFL cutdown day than a phone call. Team representatives don't tell players they made the team. They call only to tell them they've been cut.


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That put Nikita Whitlock in an unusual position Saturday. The first-year free agent fullback wasn't sure where he stood on the day the Giants and every other team had to remove 22 players from their roster. And, for a while, he didn't know how he'd find out.

"I had lost my cellphone," Whitlock said today. "You need your phone, so they can call you and cut you, so I was in here early that morning, and I'm looking everywhere for my phone. The guy, you know the reaper, was cutting everybody and telling everyone to come in. He walked up to me, and I was like, 'Dang, here it is.' He was like, 'Man, don't worry about it, you're not on the list today.' I was like, 'Whew.' So you know it was exciting. The big surprise to me was that I was going to be a starter, and to be the only fullback on the roster. That was a big thing for me, it really blew my mind."

Two other undrafted longshots, linebacker Uani 'Unga and tight end Jerome Cunningham, also celebrated the silence of the cell phones. When their phones didn't buzz by 4 o'clock, the players knew they had survived the so-called final cutdown (which is never really final, as an NFL roster is a constantly-changing entity).

Photos of players on the Giants official roster

"I was anxious to know," 'Unga said. "I was just excited. When it came to 4 o'clock, it was exciting. My wife ended up seeing it on Twitter and told me about it. We were actually driving, just got back from dropping my mom off at the airport. So I called my mom and she was freaking out at the airport."

"I was on pins and needles the whole day," Cunningham said. "I was literally next to my phone the whole day. (Getting cut) was in the back of my mind like, you just never know. You did everything that you could, but you just never know."

All three players have inspiring stories. Cunningham drew no interest from NFL teams after his senior season at Southern Connecticut State in 2012. The Giants signed him after training camp started last year, waived him, and then signed him to the practice squad, where he stayed until he joined the roster on Dec. 17. Cunningham was inactive for the season's final two games.

The Giants waived former draft choice Adrien Robinson to keep Cunningham.

"I would say it (making the team out of camp) is more of an accomplishment, just based off the circumstances that I went through the last two years," he said. "Not being on a team my first year out, then working my way out from practice squad to active roster. So it's just more of icing on the cake. It's not the end-all, but it motivated me even more. The message I want to provide to the youth, around here or back home, is don't let your circumstances dictate your future. Just continue to work hard and everything will work itself out."

'Unga tore his ACL in the final game of his senior season at BYU in 2013. The Giants signed him to their practice squad on Dec. 23 and to a reserve/future contract six days later. He impressed throughout camp and the preseason (leading the Giants with 24 tackles). With Jon Beason still slowed by a knee injury and Jameel McClain no longer with the team, 'Unga could play a major role on defense when the Giants open their season Sunday night in Dallas.

"This means a lot," 'Unga said. "I've been doing this for my family, mostly. I've always wanted to be in the NFL, and I've got my family to push me. My family ('Unga and his wife have three children) has been going through the struggle, and finally it's brought back some fruits. So it's exciting."

Whitlock played nose tackle at Wake Forest, where he posted 241 tackles and 18.5 sacks.  He was signed last year as an undrafted free agent by the Cincinnati Bengals, who moved him to fullback. Whitlock did two stints on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad before joining the Giants (practice squad on Dec. 17, reserve/future contract 12 days later). In the preseason finale last week in New England, Whitlock played fullback and defensive tackle. He is also on the four core special teams.

"I'm willing to do it all," said Whitlock, who, by the way, found his phone. "But that's completely up to them."

Whitlock replaces Henry Hynoski as the Giants' lone fullback. What would he have done if someone had said before training camp that would be the case?

"I would have told them, 'Hell yeah, let's do it,'" Whitlock said. "I have all the confidence in the world in myself. So it was surprising just because I have great respect for Henry. And I think he's one of the best fullbacks in the league. So that was why I was so surprised and for me being a first-year guy.

"Game day, I'll probably be a little out of my mind. But right now, I'm just trying to stay confident and trying to play good. And just help the team win games."

Photos of players during Mondays Practice

  • Coach Tom Coughlin said the Giants brought back safety Craig Dahl in part because he worked before with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and because of his special teams prowess. Dahl played for the Giants in 2007 and spent the following season on injured reserve after tearing his ACL late in his rookie season.

"We looked at him, obviously, on tape, the fact that he's played back there, he's a veteran, he knows the system, and he can communicate well," Coughlin said. "He'll have a few bumps in the road just to get going, but he'll know what we're doing and he'll get us lined up.

"And special teams, I think he had 11 special teams tackles last year."

Brad Wing is not only the Giants' new punter, he replaces Steve Weatherford as the holder for Josh Brown's placekicks. Asked how long it will take for him to become accustomed to the new holder, Brown said, "hopefully less than six days."

Brown, Wing and long snapper Zak DeOssie form the Giants' new battery for extra point and field goal attempts.

"Today was our first day out there, all three of us together, me, Josh and Zak," Wing said. "We got some good operation work in. They're two very good veteran guys. So I don't think there will be any issues there."

  • Coughlin prefers his punters to place the ball between the numbers and the sideline, instead of straight down the middle of the field. Wing was asked about his capability in following that directive.

"That's something that I work on," Wing said. "As a punter in this league, I think you have to have a bag of tricks. That's something that I've worked on and continue to work on and want to improve on."

  • Coughlin said, "I don't have an update" on Victor Cruz, who has been sidelined with a calf injury….Defensive end Robert Ayers (ankle) returned to the practice field (with a much shorter haircut).
  • Coughlin was asked whether Beason, who has been out with a knee injury, might play Sunday in Dallas.

"We're hoping," Coughlin said. "We have to get him out there again and get him going. He's excited and we're excited."

  • Defensive tackle Louis Nix and cornerback Asa Jackson were awarded to the Giants off waivers yesterday.

"Jackson is a guy that's played the nickel position, he started to play on the outside in Baltimore a year ago, so we thought that it was a good fit for us," Coughlin said. "The big tackle, we knew about him, discussed him thoroughly when he was coming out (of college), and a couple years later he was available, so we thought that this would be a good time to take him and work in. He had been at nose tackle. (We) don't really think that's what he is. We think he is a three-technique (defensive tackle), big guy who can move and who can run, so we were interested."

Photos of CB Asa Jackson's career with the Ravens

  • The Giants today signed two players to their practice squad, tight end Will Tye and defensive lineman Montori Hughes.

Tye was signed as a rookie free agent by the Giants on May 11. He played in 23 games with 18 starts in two seasons at Stony Brook after transferring from Florida State. Tye's two-year totals were 79 catches for 1,015 yards and nine touchdowns. He was waived on Sept. 1.

Hughes, 6-4 and 250 pounds, was waived by the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday. A fifth-round draft choice by the Colts in 2013, he played in played in four games as a rookie and in 12 games with one start last season. Hughes played college football at Tennessee-Martin.

The Giants have signed undrafted free agent, Stony Brook TE Will Tye

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