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AS THE Giants have discovered, there are at least two ways a star player can react when he's forced by injury to miss his team's championship run. One is to spend his time off the field compiling a list of grievances about everything from his role in his unit's scheme to the fact that his team didn't pay for his plane ticket to the Super Bowl—and to become so embittered that the club is left with little choice but to trade him for two draft picks just before the start of training camp. Call it the Shockey way.
Then there's the Kiwanuka way. Linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka fractured his left fibula last Nov. 18, one month before tight end Jeremy Shockey, who's now a Saint, suffered an identical injury. Like Shockey, Kiwanuka struggled to come to terms with the fact that the Giants won Super Bowl XLII without him. "It was a very emotional experience," Kiwanuka says. "I couldn't have been more proud of being a part of this team, but it was heartbreaking not being out there for what would have been the biggest game of my career."
Unlike his former teammate, however, Kiwanuka, 25, channeled that emotion toward something constructive. The Giants had converted the 6'5", 265-pound defensive end into a strongside linebacker before the 2007 season, and both he and general manager Jerry Reese admit he struggled at first. "When you've played with your hand on the ground your whole career, then you back up and stand up, it's a tough adjustment," says Reese. "Early on you could see him way out of position, overrunning things." Kiwanuka—whom teammates call simply Kiwi—was just beginning to get the hang of his new position when his leg snapped in a game against the Lions. Rather than sulking, Kiwanuka exploited his recovery time to master the intricacies of his new position. "I watched all the film I could," he says. "I wasn't walking. I wasn't doing anything [else]. There's no doubt I've improved."
That was readily apparent at Giants camp in Albany, N.Y., particularly in pass coverage. Sharpened by film-room study, Kiwanuka's awareness of where he should position himself is now allowing him to use what coach Tom Coughlin jokingly calls his "27-foot arms" to knock down passes as far as 35 yards downfield. Coughlin singled Kiwanuka out for praise after several sessions.
The pass-rushing skills that made Kiwanuka the final pick of the 2006 first round looked as formidable as ever in camp—and his contribution on that front will be essential now, with the retirement of Michael Strahan and the season-ending knee injury suffered by Osi Umenyiora on Aug. 23; those two defensive ends combined for 22 sacks in 2007. On passing downs Kiwanuka will most likely join defensive end Justin Tuck on the line in coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's attacking system.
As the line brings the pressure, the secondary should be waiting to take advantage. There, Spagnuolo has a new toy to play with in rookie Kenny Phillips, the Miami product who looks poised to continue the school's tradition of producing game-changing, Pro Bowl safeties (see: Ed Reed and the late Sean Taylor). The Giants felt like Ralphie Parker on Christmas morning when Phillips fell to them at the end of the first round. He looks significantly bigger than his listed 6'2" and 210 pounds, and he drew nothing but raves in camp for his play in pass coverage and run support. While he might not start Week 1, Reese says, "he should be a big-timer for us."
The Giants won one of the most improbable championships in NFL history last season, when a host of formerly unheralded players became big-timers. They'll need more of the same in 2008, from the likes of Kiwanuka and Phillips. A schedule that's fairly soft through the first two months of the season should help propel New York to a wild-card spot. And as the Giants showed last season, after that anything can happen.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH TOM COUGHLIN (103--89 in NFL), fifth season with Giants