Herzlich hopes 2013 is breakthrough year

June, 11, 2013
6/11/13
2:29
PM ET
Mark HerzlichJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMark Herzlich has the inside track on the Giants' starting middle linebacker job.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Just a few lockers down from Hakeem Nicks, who was mobbed by the media on Tuesday morning, Mark Herzlich quietly discussed the biggest opportunity of his life.

Nicks' presence at Day 1 of the Giants' three-day mandatory minicamp is the biggest story of the day. But Herzlich could be one of the biggest, and best, stories of the summer, as he tries to secure the team's starting middle linebacker job.

The 25-year-old has already beaten cancer. Now the former Boston College star has been lining up with the first-team defense, and appears to have the inside track on starting in the middle come September.

"It’s going well. A lot of good learning," said Herzlich of OTAs the past few weeks. "It’s not as much physical stuff right now, it’s a lot of mental stuff -- reacting, playing fast. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of doing that."

As a junior at BC in 2008, Herzlich was a first-team All-American and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. But he missed all of the following season while being treated for Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. He returned to the field in 2010, but went undrafted the following spring.

The Giants signed him as a rookie free agent, and he's played in 27 games the past two seasons. He missed the final five games of his rookie year, plus the Giants' Super Bowl run, due to an ankle injury. But he's gotten four starts, and shown flashes of potential stardom.

Herzlich said his two years of NFL experience have made a huge difference in his game.

"Everything happens so fast that now, as opposed to my rookie year, I see a play and -- bam! -- after a split second I know what the play’s gonna be before it even happens," he said.

The Giants are in transition when it comes to their linebacker unit. Last year's starter in the middle, Chase Blackburn, is with the Carolina Panthers. The Giants also parted ways with Michael Boley, who started at linebacker the past four seasons.

There is plenty of competition at each spot, but Herzlich has distinguished himself in the early going, including interceptions in back-to-back practices last week.

He is also putting in lots of work off the field, with buddy Spencer Paysinger -- another undrafted free agent entering his third NFL season -- and currently serving as Boley's replacement with the first unit.

"After the first OTA, we always go and watch the films -- me and Spence were watching film, and we’re like, 'We’re gonna know this defense better than the coaches,'" Herzlich said. "So we went to Costco that day, got dry erase boards -- I was on the dry erase board all [Monday], just reviewing everything from OTAs, getting ready for minicamp. That way, when you eliminate the mental mistakes, you can play faster and more physical."

The Giants also picked up free agent Dan Conner, who started eight games for the Dallas Cowboys last season and 11 games for the Panthers the year before.

But it's Herzlich's job to lose as of now.

"This is an unbelievable opportunity, just to have the opportunity to break into the starting role," Herzlich said. "And the rest is on me -- whether I perform well enough and do well enough and study well enough to get that job."
Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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