EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Over the years, the New York Giants have been blessed with great linebackers.
Guys like Sam Huff, Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson and Jesse Armstead earned multiple Pro Bowl selections manning the linebacker position for the Giants.
But with the new season set to kick off next month and the preseason opener Saturday in Pittsburgh, the Giants are featuring a group of virtual unknowns at the position.
Two of last year’s starting linebackers, Michael Boley (Atlanta) and Chase Blackburn (Carolina), are gone, while the third, Mathias Kiwanuka, has been moved back to defensive end to offset the back injury of All-Pro Jason Pierre-Paul.
That means when the Giants kick off the season Sept. 8 at Dallas, there will be an entirely new linebacker group, made up of undrafted free agents, late-round draft picks and veterans trying to prove themselves by getting a second chance.
‘‘It’s our time to take this over and run with it,’’ said third-year player Spencer Paysinger, who went undrafted in 2011 out of Oregon and signed as a free agent. ‘‘This is probably the biggest opportunity of my life. I believe in us and believe we can carry the torch for the linebackers. I think they (the Giants’ front office) showed they had faith and confidence in us and we have to repay that faith.’’
Paysinger started three games at weak side linebacker last season and made 27 tackles. He also led the team with 24 tackles on special teams.
‘‘I know we can be competitive at a high level,’’ Paysinger said. ‘‘I know the confidence is high. I sit with Mark (Herzlich) all the time and study. We came in together undrafted. We do a lot together. We’re an underrated group. It’s time for the linebackers to step up.’’
Mark Herzlich is also unproven. The former Boston College All-American who gained notoriety for his highly publicized and successful battle with bone cancer is expected to be the starter at middle linebacker. Herzlich was also signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011.
‘‘I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity,’’ said Herzlich, who started two games last season and made 14 tackles. ‘‘It’s a dream come true. I remember having the same feeling in college, thinking I had a chance to play for the first time. I worked very hard then and I am working hard now. It’s a huge reward for hard work and I'm definitely ready for the challenge.’’
Herzlich said that there’s good chemistry among the linebackers.
‘‘In our room, we don’t care who gets what amount of money or publicity,’’ Herzlich said. ‘‘It’s about going out and playing good defense. We have a good connection together. We’re working and progressing. I think the challenge is there, because the team had faith in me and I want the challenge to see if the faith is unwarranted. We’re working well, but we’re shooting for perfection. There has been a lot of improvement already.’’
Jacquian Williams was drafted by the Giants in the sixth round out of South Florida in 2011. He started three games last year at outside linebacker and made 24 tackles. Right now, Williams is listed on the second team on the Giants’ depth chart.
‘‘No one said that this was going to be easy,’’ Williams said. ‘‘I'm happy with the group of guys we have at linebacker. My job is to play the position and I am getting the opportunity to show what I have. I have experience here and that’s important. I don’t look to see what people say about us. This is definitely our year.’’
Aaron Curry was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks out of Wake Forest with the fourth overall pick in 2009. After a brief stop in Oakland, where he was released, Curry has been given a new life with the Giants.
‘‘I'm excited to be back out there and competing for a job,’’ Curry said. ‘‘I have a lot of confidence with this unit. I feel like I'm fitting in. I guess we should feel some sort of pressure, because the other guys aren’t here and this is a high performance business.’’
Another veteran looking for playing time is Keith Rivers. Taken ninth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008 and traded to the Giants last year, Rivers started six games last season and made 37 tackles. He is definitely in the mix for a starting position.
‘‘We’re just trying to make a name for ourselves,’’ Williams said. ‘‘It’s a new opportunity for all of us.’’
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin wasn’t ready to comment on the progress of the linebackers.
‘‘Let’s see what happens in a game,’’ Coughlin said. ‘‘There have been some drills where they've looked good and then there are others where they get beat over the top because they are so keyed on stopping the run. There are a lot of adjustments that need to be made with the new personnel there.’’
NOTES: RB David Wilson is reluctant to give up his job as the Giants’ primary kick returner. ‘‘I don’t know about the competition there,’’ Wilson said. ‘‘I know there are a lot of people who want that job. I had some success there and I want to do it again.’’ Wilson set a team record with 1,533 kickoff return yards last season and had two of the top four single-game yardage marks in team history. .WR Hakeem Nicks, still unable to practice with a groin injury, did some running with team trainers on the sideline. . Rookie DT Johnathan Hankins, the team’s second-round draft pick out of Ohio State, got to see some action with the first unit. .. Coughlin on attending Saturday night’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony: ‘‘I thought it was a great experience. You listen to the inductees, the players talk about their former coaches with tremendous emotion. It was very emotional to be there. What Bill (Parcells, who Coughlin worked under) said about the locker room was not just about athletics, but about life. People all coming together, all for the same purpose. No one person does it by themselves, so they took the time to thank those along the way. That’s why football is the greatest game of all.’’