It isn’t just the burst off the line of scrimmage and into the backfield, although that has been a familiar refrain for newly converted linebacker Olivier Vernon through the early part of Giants’ training camp. Pat Shurmur certainly loves that part of Vernon’s game.
But there’s more to what the first-year coach sees in Vernon than just the sheer athletic talent.
“I have a great appreciation for what a pro he is,” Shurmur said. “We all know he is a dynamic pass rusher, but he does a very good job playing the run as well. He was here for all spring, really engaged in everything we’re doing, learning the new defense.”
It is that passion shown by Vernon, a marquee addition two years ago during a free-agent spending splurge, that gives Shurmur and his staff reason to believe this can be a major bounce-back season not only for the team, but also for Vernon.
After having been slowed by an ankle injury that forced him to miss games for the first time in his six seasons, Vernon has looked sensational through the offseason and into training camp. And with a new position under first-year defensive coordinator James Bettcher, Vernon is thriving.
“OV is an unbelievable player,” linebacker Mark Herzlich said. “I’m seeing the power, the speed. There’s never been a time where I haven’t seen that.”
But it is particularly heartening for the Giants to see Vernon at his best. He’s one of the team’s most tireless workers, often spending time after practice working on technique, including Monday’s post-practice session with newly acquired left tackle Nate Solder. With Bettcher’s system creating different roles for Vernon, who played exclusively at end in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense the last two seasons, there is reason to believe he can become an indispensable player.
That Vernon, who spent most of the previous offseason at home in Florida, remained with the Giants throughout the spring underscores his commitment to mastering the new system.
“It’s aggressive, a lot of the guys are having fun with that, flying around,” Vernon said of Bettcher’s attacking system. “There is a lot less thinking when it comes down to it. Just getting down pat and getting into the playbook. Once we get the communication down, it tends to help guys on the field learn the playbook because everyone is talking amongst each other.”
There is one role that won’t change for Vernon.
“I’m still going to be rushing the quarterback,” said Vernon, who had 8½ sacks in 2016 and 6½ last year. “Rush the quarterback and stop the run. That’s my forte. Anything else, I can handle.”
Vernon’s potential resurgence becomes even more important with the loss of Jason Pierre-Paul, who was traded to the Bucs less than a year after signing a new contract. The Giants did add pass rusher Connor Barwin and drafted linebacker Lorenzo Carter, but Vernon is clearly the best option for getting to the quarterback.
“Just trying to digest everything and be put in a role where I can make plays for the defense and establish myself as a top pass rusher and top run defender,” Vernon said.
He hopes to wipe away the stench of last year’s 3-13 season.
“I think everybody came into the building during OTAs trying to wash away last year and try to improve on what we have been doing around here and build a foundation,” he said.
At 27 and in his prime, the Giants need Vernon to be a cornerstone of that foundation.