Giants rookie tackle Justin Pugh gets start for opener, and he's got a serious case of jitters
Justin Pugh has no idea what he's in store for Sunday night. No rookie starting in his first NFL game can. Pugh, who will be plugged in at right tackle against the Cowboys, isn't even sure whom he'll have to block. But there is one thing Pugh is fairly certain he'll have to deal with at some point at AT&T Stadium.
"Before the game and until I get out there and get that first hit in, I'll probably be a little nervous," Pugh said this week. "I always have been that way. I think that's how offensive linemen naturally are. You get a little nervous and you feel it in your stomach, you feel like you're going to throw up. And then once you hit somebody, you feel a lot better."
It is, in fact, a fairly common occurrence. Even veteran guard Chris Snee has a pregame, uh, ritual, that involves leaning headfirst into a garbage can on the sideline.
Pugh and Snee have a lot more in common. They both play on the right side of the line, and as Snee did, Pugh will be a starter in the first game of his NFL career.
Coach Tom Coughlin has been hesitant to plug rookies into the starting lineup. Not even Eli Manning started right away. Nor did Hakeem Nicks, Jason Pierre-Paul or any other high draft pick in the last decade.
Besides the need to use Greg Jones at middle linebacker in the 2011 opener because of an injury to Jonathan Goff earlier that week, during his tenure with the Giants, Coughlin has opened the season with only two rookies in the starting lineup.
"There's no doubt that he's had an opportunity like very few have," Coughlin said. "He's a young guy. He does some good and he does some bad, but he certainly is out there giving it all he has, and he'll grow. He'll get better."
And as Coughlin also pointed out regarding his last rookie starter on the offensive line: "The first one didn't do too bad."
Pugh may be next to Snee against the Cowboys -- and perhaps in line for the pregame Pepto Bismol -- but he's not putting himself next to Snee in terms of his play just yet.
"You never want to have that moment where you think you've arrived, because I haven't arrived," Pugh said. "I'm getting a great opportunity to play the game I love. To go out there and to prove that I belong, I think that's the biggest thing.
"I don't think I'm ever going to say I've arrived until I've accomplished what a Chris Snee or a Dave Diehl have and I have Super Bowl rings. I think right now I have a great opportunity to earn the respect of the guys in this locker room by my play and I think to go out there and play for them is what I want to do."
It was the injury to Diehl that thrust Pugh into the starting lineup. The veteran needed surgery to repair a thumb injury after the second preseason game, and Pugh wound up starting at right tackle against the Jets in the all-important third preseason game.
This will be very different, though. Pugh has spent most of the preseason using a philosophy of "faceless opponents." In other words, he tried to avoid noticing whom he was blocking. Instead, he focused on his own techniques and assignments.
Now, against the Cowboys, identifying the man across the line of scrimmage will be an important part of his job. It could be Anthony Spencer. It could be George Selvie or Kyle Wilber. It might even be DeMarcus Ware.
"Whoever I go up against, I'm going to go out there and compete. That's all I can do," Pugh said. "I can't hope that they don't line [Ware] up on my side. Getting into that is just a sticky situation, so I'm going to go out there and play whoever they line up against me."
One thing Pugh is ready for, he said, is the intensity of the Giants-Cowboys rivalry. He's from just outside of Philadelphia, so he has a healthy loathing of all things Dallas. "I think growing up an Eagles fan, you realize the intensity of the rivalries in this division," Pugh said. "Just knowing what goes into every game is vital, even it being the first one. It's a huge one."
And, as Pugh quite obviously pointed out, the biggest game of his career so far.
"I'm just kind of taking it in stride, going out there and doing what I do best, just playing football," he said. "I'm ready."