As a middle linebacker, Uani' Unga is in charge of making the calls in the huddle and declaring the checks at the line of scrimmage. He essentially is driving the second-string defense, an important role on a team with a starter who hasn't made it through a 16-game season healthy since 2010 and a veteran backup with what could be a career-threatening neck injury.
And he's doing it with what amounts to an NFL learner's permit.
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After missing all of last season while recovering from an ACL tear suffered in the final game of his college career at BYU in 2013, Unga saw his first NFL action on Friday against the Bengals. Unlike others who were making their pro debuts, though, Unga was pressed to be in charge of every other teammate on the field. It's a task he performed at BYU, when he led the nation in tackles as a senior. But doing it here at this level is very different.
"A lot of times, a lot of things are going on in my head," he said of the playing experience. "But I'm sifting through the playbook and being able to make the right calls and right checks. Little by little, I'm getting the confidence of the D-line. Hopefully I'll keep moving forward with that."
He played 36 defensive snaps against the Bengals and made three tackles. He also tipped a pass away that fell incomplete. Those were the parts everyone saw. What he'll be graded on by the Giants' coaches is other skills. His command of the teammates. His presence in the huddle. His knowledge of the calls and the playbook.
"For the most part, I kept my cool," Unga said. "There was a little bit of miscommunication that put us in tough spots, but as long as we continue to communicate, we'll be able to get everything straight."
The Giants are counting on it. Unga is the backup quarterback of the defense right now; they hope they will never need him, but they still need to know he's capable if they do. With Jon Beason's recent injury history, it's almost certain that at some point they will. And because Jameel McClain is out indefinitely with a neck injury, Unga is the next man up.
"I try to not get ahead of myself," he said about being a rolled ankle or sore foot or jammed shoulder away from a starting gig (Beason, coming off foot surgery, has not missed a practice yet this summer). "But I know that if it's needed, I'm ready to step up at any time."
A help on special teams
Unga has impressed the Giants with his speed and toughness. Tom Coughlin said he thinks he can help on special teams (he played nine of those snaps on Friday as well). The one thing he needs to work on, Coughlin said, is his confidence. "I think that's an experience he's got to get better at," he said.
It doesn't help that Beason exhibits so much command when he is on the field. Say what you will about his level of play, Beason orchestrates the defense with confidence and assurance. That's a high bar to be measured against.
"[Beason] is always coming along and telling me to be more confident in my calls," Unga said. " . . . I guess the biggest thing is they want me to be more confident. When I'm more confident, they're able to be more confident in me. If I'm hesitating, then they're going to be hesitating."Praising Unga's poise
It's a tough job and, with McClain sidelined, an important one. "From my experience playing the mike [on other teams], it's very difficult," said veteran Jonathan Casillas, a backup at weak-side linebacker who plays alongside Unga. "It's a lot to ask from anybody, let alone a really young guy like that. For somebody to be that young and to be the caller of the defense and able to make plays, that's very impressive. You don't really see that out of young guys who people don't really know about . . . I don't know if I could do as good of a job as he's doing at that position."
Others also are praising Unga's poise, whether with sincerity or out of self-survival.
"The defensive line, they've been coming to me every week and saying, 'Hey, you got it, man,' " Unga said. "The way they play is based on me giving them the right calls. If I'm out there messing up, it doesn't put us in a good situation."